Prairie Home Companion, A: Altman’s Last Movie, Starring Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin

For his 39th film, director Robert Altman joins forces with writer Garrison Keillor to create a comic backstage fable, Prairie Home Companion, about a fictitious old-fashioned radio variety show that miraculously has managed to survive, despite fierce competition from TV and other modes of entertainment.

Scheduled as counter-programming to the summer’s top guns, Prairie Home Companion, which world-premiered at the Berlin Festival in February and is playing some regional fests like SWSX, will be distributed by Picturehouse June 9.

Keillor is the creator and host of one of radio’s longest (31 years) running programs. The film takes its cue from a casual remark made by one of the characters, “This radio show is the kind of program that died 50 years ago, only someone forgot to tell the performers,” a comment that both amuses and bemuses Altman.

Ken LaZebnik and Keillor have co-written a script about a radio show that’s very much like the one Keillor has been broadcasting since 1974 from St. Paul, Minnesota. The playful story is set on a rainy Saturday night in St. Paul, where fans file into the Fitzgerald Theater to see A Prairie Home Companion, a staple of radio station WLT, not knowing that WLT has been sold to a Texas conglomerate and that tonights show is the last.

Altman’s loving tribute to this old institution is evocative and respectful, but not nostalgic, as you might have been expected, considering his professional beginning as a radio writer. Indeed, in tone, Prairie Home Companion is very different from Woody Allen’s nostalgic valentine, Radio Days, which was set during the Depression and celebrated the unique meanings of that medium for American listeners.

Altman’s decision to steer clear of artifice, contrivance, and melodrama is admirable, though audiences not interested in radio shows, or country music, will not find much to relate to other than the stellar cast: Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson Sisters Yolanda and Rhonda, Lindsay Lohan as Streep’s daughter Lola, who gets her big chance to sing on the show and then forgets the words, Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, a private eye down on his luck who works as a backstage doorkeeper, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as Dusty and Lefty, the Old Trailhands singing cowboys, Virginia Madsen as a mysterious angel, Tommy Lee Jones as the Axeman, and Keillor himself in the film’s most dominant role.

The sensibilities of Altman and Keillor don’t always match, though they are both Midwesterners. Altman is at heart a cynical and ironic filmmaker, but here he’s trying to underplay those qualities and emphasize the regional dry tone, the program’s whimsical humor, the simple nature of the singers. The performers don’t belong to the same breed of Altman’s characters in his other films about music or movies, such as Nashville or The Player.

About half of the movie is dominated by music, which should broaden its appeal. However, the situations, characters, humor, and verbal gags are uniquely American and may not easily cross geographic and national boundaries.

Shot at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater in Keillor’s home state of Minnesota, Prairie Home Companion transfers to the big-screen a radio show like “A Prairie Home Companion” with Altman moving his camera smoothly and seductively on stage, around the stage, backstage, and the old theater itself.

The central musical acts belong to two couples: Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), the remaining members of what once was a four-sister country music act, and Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), singing cowboys and rivals in one-upsmanship.

Then there’s Yolanda’s daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan), who distracts herself from her mom’s old tales of theatrical and family life by writing poems about suicide. Yolanda pretends to be interested in Lola’s writing, but she keeps interrupting her, going back to her stories.

Private detective Guy Noir, one of the show’s memorable characters, is refigured here as an underemployed investigator who handles the show’s security. Guy is supposed to keep a watchful eye, but he too gets distracted by Madsen’s mysterious blonde femme fatale (in more ways than one). In a performance that calls for overacting, Kline mixes film noir hard-boiled dialogue with a touch of Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau, while not neglecting Buster Keaton-like slapstick and pratfalls.

Other characters include the radio’s harried stage manager (Tim Russell, a regular on Keillor’s show) and his very pregnant assistant (“Saturday Night Live’s” Maya Rudolph).

Tommy Lee Jones’ Texas “Axe Man” shows up in the last reel to witness the final moments of the Fitzgerald, named for St. Paul’s own F. Scott, a statue of whom Guy Noir scavenges. Fitzgerals’s bust gets as many close-ups as the human characters.

Dominating all is the iconic, odd figure of GK (Keillor), a benign man, seemingly unfazed by any disaster; he adapts smoothly to any crisis, on and offstage. Ignoring the theater’s impending doom, GK refuses to acknowledge that it’s the final show, insisting that, “Every show’s your last show. That’s my philosophy.” Nor will he acknowledge that a vet cast member dies offstage during the broadcast, claiming, “I don’t do eulogies.”

GK prefers to shuffle along as if it’s just another program. He is so laid back and unhurried that it’s a miracle the show goes on. As a performer, Keillor’s folksy Midwestern manner and leisurely verbal style echo those of Will Rogers and Jimmy Stewart. Easily distracted, GK is always willing to tell his listener another tall tale.

The saga’s strangest character is an angel of death (Madsen), dressed in a white trench coat. Later in the story, it’s revealed that she died while listening to the show’s broadcast. Ironically, a standard penguin joke that she didn’t understand was the cause for her death.

For half of the film, Madsen’s angel walks around, following characters and intently observing their behavior. With her sexy look and blonde hair, Madsen fulfills a similar function to the Angel of Death played by Jessica Lange in Bob Fosse’s film memoir, All That Jazz. In both films, the specter of death hangs over the characters in both real and metaphoric ways.

Effort to have some semblance of “plot” is understandable but not particularly successful. Along the way, there are intimations of a past affair between Yolanda and GK, which come out of nowhere. Slightly more effective are the subplots that involve the death of a vet performer and the arrival of the corporate Axe Man. But these sub-stories feel like fillers, in between the musical numbers. Fortunately, Altman has the right sense to always goes back to the film’s roots, the radio show.

The comic bits from Streep and Tomlin and Harrelson and Reilly are whimsical and feel improvised. You got a glimpse of them during the Oscar telecast, when the couple presented the Honorary Oscar to Altman. Keillor’s droll lyrics and jingles for sponsors, both real and fake, add fun, and they prove necessary whenever there’s chaos on stage, which is most of the time.
With the exception of framing scenes at a local diner, which bookend the story at the beginning and end, the entire tale takes place as the “fictional” show prepares for its final broadcast, before its longtime home is demolished by Texas real estate interests for a new parking lot.

Edward Lachman’s camera is moving constantly as it follow the various participants onstage and backstage, capturing their quirks, temperaments, bits of their pasts, dreams and fears of the future; in a funny bit, Yolanda is reminded by her daughter that she has no pension plan.

Among the spirited and energetic numbers are Tomlin and Streep singing Goodbye to My Mama,” and Lindsay Lohans delivery of a personal version of Frankie and Johnny. Dusty and Lefty’s banters end in the number of “Bad Jokes” with off-color lyrics. L.Q. Jones as a vet country singer adds more down-home flavor.

But the most prominent singers are Yolanda and Rhonda, who indulge in gossip about their family, memories and disappointments of their childhood . The songs are backed by Keillor’s actual band, and Altman acknowledges the role played by sound effects man Tom Keith.

Shot entirely in the Fitzgerald, except for the opening and closing scenes, which take place in a nearby diner, the picture combines Altman’s mobile, improvisatory style and Keillor’s songs and stories. The film uses the musicians, the crew and the stage setting of the actual radio show, resulting in a whimsical, bitter-sweet work.

It’s always good to see a new film by Altman, who just turned 81 and received an Honorary Oscar, a compensation for failing to win a competitive directing Oscar, despite five nominations. Nonetheless, in strategy, style, and scope, Prairie Home Companion is more in the vein of the modest The Company (an inside look at the dance world) than Nashville. In other words, this is a minor (middling) work in pantheon of Altman, who seems to grapple here with his own advanced age and legacy.