A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman's best film since the one-two punch of The Player and Short Cuts back in the early 1990s, might at first glance seem like a minor work, an ambling, congenial picture constructed as little more than an opportunity to corral several major talents and give them a chance to sing songs and tell jokes in a relaxed setting. That the film is inspired by Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show of the same name adds to that impression: Keillor, at least in his on-air persona, is the epitome of laid-back, down-home hospitality, and a sense of urgency is the last thing one intuits from either the radio program or the film version.
Altman's Prairie can indeed be viewed in such a light, but there's more going on here. For all its levity, the central theme focuses on the specter of Death -- how it hovers around us, how it haunts us, and how it can inform our every move. It's a logical concern for the 81-year-old Altman, who might be living on borrowed time (he revealed on this year's Oscar telecast that he had received a heart transplant years ago). In fact, death has long been a concern for the maverick director (two choice quotes on IMDb.com: "Retirement? You're talking about death, right?" and "What is an ending? There's no such thing. Death is the only ending"), yet obviously it's also on the mind of Keillor (who co-wrote the film with Ken LaZebnik). And we're not just talking about human death but also the death of an institution, the death of a dream -- indeed, the death of a way of life.
The movie chronicles the events that take place during the last broadcast of a popular radio show. The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), a corporate suit with no respect for history or tradition, has dropped by to make sure the closing goes according to plan. G.K. (Keillor), the program's guiding light, takes it all in stride ("Every show is your last show; that's my philosophy"), more concerned that all the talent is in place. And what talent! First, there are the singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin). Then there are the cowboys Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), adept at crooning cowpoke tunes and telling so-bad-they're-funny jokes. And then there's the veteran singer Chuck Akers (the great character actor L.Q. Jones, a Sam Peckinpah favorite who's still ambling along at the age of 78), who marks the show's demise in the most literal manner imaginable.
Backstage, the characters are no less colorful. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) handles security for the program, though his bumbling manner recalls Inspector Clouseau more than it does Sam Spade. Yolanda's daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) mopes around in the dressing room while Mom performs. And then there's the mysterious lady (Virginia Madsen) who appears out of nowhere and hangs around for the rest of the show. The credits list her as Dangerous Woman, though Femme Fatale would be equally enigmatic; at any rate, is she an angel of mercy or a trafficker in death?
Madsen's character holds the key to the movie's inherent interest in mortality, but the signs are everywhere. The Johnson sisters were once a singing quartet; now, there are only two left. Lola is obsessed with suicide and writes poems to that effect. At least two characters die during the course of the film. Even a harmless joke involving penguins plays into a person's demise.
Yet the mood of A Prairie Home Companion isn't depressing; it's bittersweet. And that's only part of the time: When the radio performers are front and center, the movie is nothing less than a joyous celebration of both Americana and the arts. Streep (who sang to equally good effect in Postcards from the Edge) and Tomlin make a formidable duet, while Harrelson and Reilly break through any lingering melancholy with their steady stream of quips (showcased in a terrific number called "Bad Jokes").
The backstage actors also hold their own, with Kline a particular standout as Guy Noir. It's easy to forget that in addition to his standing as a fine dramatic actor, he's an exemplary physical comedian, and here he's occasionally allowed to show off his limber moves. Even in the final sequence -- a masterpiece of ambiguity -- his hand gestures contribute to the scene's exquisiteness, a somber, rueful moment that inexorably illustrates that, in death as in life, the show must go on.
WHILE IT MAY be too harsh (and depressing) to state that it's human nature to want to see something successful eventually fail, it might be accurate to note that it's human nature to expect something successful to finally take a tumble off the ladder. Admit it: Ever since Pixar Animation Studios began its incredible run with Toy Story back in 1995 (followed by five more toon blockbusters, the last being The Incredibles), haven't most observers been wondering when the company would hit a critical and/or commercial roadblock and watch its latest effort crash and burn?