The marriage of 81-year-old filmmaker Robert Altman and 63-year-old writer-performer Garrison Keillor has produced the first film of 2006 that I can honestly — without qualification of any kind — say I love. However, it’s not just a relative thing since I can count the films of 2006 that I’ve even liked very much on one hand with fingers left over. Put simply, A Prairie Home Companion is just a great movie.
And it would be a great movie — a special movie — in any year. At the same time, it’s very much a part of the year in which it appeared, because much of what makes it such a special film is where it comes in Altman’s filmography and life. Not too many 81-year-old filmmakers are given the opportunity to make films these days, which says a great deal about the base stupidity at work in the movie industry. (There’s more life, energy and cinematic invention in this film from Altman than in all the exploding, effects-driven rubbish taking up screen space at the movies this season.)
Indeed, the only way Altman could be insured for this film was to have a stand-by director — Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love) — in case the legendary filmmaker was unable to complete the film. It’s not perhaps too surprising under the circumstances, then, that the resulting film is first and foremost a meditation on death and the world moving on. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very funny, charming film that fulfills its function as a cinematic version of the long-running and much loved radio show, but death and a general end of an era air hangs over the entire film.
The very premise — being present at the last broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with the theater in which it’s broadcast being slated for demolition in favor of a parking lot — establishes this. But it hardly stops there.
The film also includes an actual death (with the telling words, “There’s nothing tragic in the death of an old man”), much discussion over the “proper” attitude toward death, an angel of death (whose own death was the ironic result of one of the show’s standard jokes), lingering bitterness over the death of a brief love affair, and the suicide/death obsession of the youngest person in the film (Altman and Keillor both know that the “romance” of death is the province of the young).
Similarly, many of the characters are out of their time. Not only is most of what they talk about grounded in the past, but they’re holdovers from another era, thinking in terms that often have little relevance to the modern world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the down-on-his-luck gumshoe who works security for the program. Occasionally narrating the proceedings — in ludicrous sub-Raymond Chandler noir style — he thinks in simplistic terms that might have been practical in the 1940s. Consider his solution for saving the show — it’s entirely based on the concept of a single “Mr. Big” villain in terms that have no basis in the world of the 21st century.
This is a film about nostalgia that refuses to succumb to nostalgia for its own sake. That might seem odd coming from Garrison Keillor, who has made a career out of nostalgia with the radio version of A Prairie Home Companion. But is it really? The nostalgia in Keillor’s show is always undercut by the canny realization that there’s no such thing as “the good old days.” In fact, much of the show’s humor is grounded in the idea of harboring fond memories of some truly miserable times.
This is also a film that embraces life and change. The various death aspects of the film are countered by both the pregnant floor manager Molly (Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph) and the evolution of Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan) from withdrawn, sulky, death-obsessed kid to a vibrant person in her own right. In the much misunderstood scene where Lola gets her big moment on the air, she mangles “Frankie and Johnny” because of losing the lyrics and having to make it up as she goes along. “Is that right?” someone asks Keillor, who decides it’s close enough. That’s the point — it’s close, much like the show’s own tongue-in-cheek approach to nostalgia and Keillor’s film character’s refusal to mourn change. It’s life and it’s imperfect, but it’s life all the same, and that’s what matters.
Some will doubtless claim that the film has no plot — and apart from being a fantasticated record of the “final show,” it really hasn’t — but that’s part of its special quality. And let’s face it, that’s what makes the material so right for Altman’s approach to film as a tapestry of little moments that combine — when it works — to form a peculiarly satisfying whole. It certainly works here. Keillor has handed Altman the script of a lifetime, and Altman has given him the perfect film of his brainchild — while summing up so much of himself and his films in the bargain.
Glowing performances — in terms of both acting and singing — from an impossibly good cast bring it all together to become a truly remarkable work. See it. Savor it. And see it again. Rated PG-13 for risque humor.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke