Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” is a raggedy dandelion-head of a movie — shaggier, even, than most Altman movies, considering we’re talking about a director who prefers improvisatory flight to strictly defined structure. It’s by no means the greatest Altman, and not even a great Altman. And yet, even though it was written and conceived by Garrison Keillor — as a fanciful fiction that draws on elements of his popular radio show — it is somehow pure Altman. The way the lines of dialogue nip at one another’s heels, the way disparate individuals drift into makeshift families that are both tighter and more contentious than flesh-and-blood ones: Those are Altman’s maker’s marks, and their presence here is indelible and reassuring.
Those trademarks are so vivid that some longtime Altman fans (and certainly many Altman detractors) may claim that the 81-year-old director is just retracing the territory that made him a maverick in the ’70s. What’s more, “A Prairie Home Companion” is about the very last performance of a radio variety show — a show that has miraculously survived for years even in the age of television, a show that, as one character puts it, has been on the air “since Jesus was in the third grade.” For that reason alone, some moviegoers may see the picture as an act of desperation: Altman the outmoded cowpoke is getting ready to shamble into the sunset, so why not make a movie about a form of entertainment that’s practically outmoded?
But there’s a difference between desperation and melancholy defiance. And “A Prairie Home Companion,” even with its aura of gentle amiability, is defiant to the core. As both Keillor and Altman have conceived it, this is a movie that lives squarely in the modern world: Far from blissfully ignoring the context of the culture around it, it’s painfully aware of that culture’s realities. This is a messy, rambling picture; in places, it’s maddening. And yet its lackadaisical, conversational quality is something that’s missing almost completely from contemporary mainstream filmmaking. So many of the big modern movies feel blueprinted to within an inch of their lives, which is not to say that they’re well-written: Sometimes they feel like moving storyboards, pictures that have been mapped out and executed according to a marketing plan, instead of being first made and then marketed. In a world of giant budgets, of endings that are rewritten and reshot three or four times in order to appease test audiences, the kind of improvisatory exploration that Altman has specialized in has become much harder to do.
“A Prairie Home Companion” feels its way along, and trusts we’re right there with it. More than anything, Altman seems to be yearning for casualness: for movies that have the feel of life unfolding before our eyes, for movies filled with half-finished conversations that, even in their truncated state, manage to say it all. Those are the kinds of movies — “M*A*S*H,” “Nashville” and, the most passionate of all, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” — that Altman used to make, used to be able to make. (And even amid the freedom of the ’70s, they were a risk.) “A Prairie Home Companion” isn’t in that league. It’s a sweet picture, enjoyable enough if you simply choose to glide along its surface. But the implicit whisper behind “A Prairie Home Companion” is that Altman doesn’t want either the moviemaking or the moviegoing experience to be scripted to the point of lifelessness. And by the movie’s end, that whisper has become a lion’s roar.
Here, Keillor plays not himself but a version of himself who goes by the name G.K., a variety-show host who’s part ringleader, part ladies’ man, and part wry, observant bystander. The show, like the markedly more successful one Keillor hosts in real life, originates from St. Paul. It’s a blend of storytelling, musical performances and old-timey commercials with a vaguely dada flair (“Brought to you by the Association of Federated Organizations: Somewhere there’s an organization that’s right for you”). A Texas radio executive (known, ominously, as Axeman, and played by Tommy Lee Jones) has bought the station that airs the program, and he’s about to pull the plug on it. The story — not really a plot so much as a continuous unfolding of moments, and a relay of interactions between the characters — takes place on the show’s last night, as the cast and crew assemble for the last time.
Some of them, like the wonderful, fluttery character played by Marylouise Burke, known as Lunch Lady, just can’t believe the show is ending; others, like the sister act played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin (their names are Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson), are wistful but vaguely resigned, as if they feel lucky the show survived even as long as it did; and others, like Maya Rudolph’s cranky, briskly efficient and heavily pregnant assistant stage manager Molly, just want the show to run smoothly, whether it’s the last night or not. And for most of them — from the seemingly uncomplicated singing-cowboy act, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), to the crotchety-sweet croaky crooner Chuck Akers (played by the wonderful veteran actor L.Q. Jones) — the routine of showmanship is what they love most about their work. They’re not about to let their last night of performing get mired in sentimentality.
Commerce may be what’s bringing this show to an end. But is the intrusion of commerce a fate worse than death? It’s something of a minor spoiler to tell you (and please stop reading here if you’re sensitive to such things) that one of the spectators watching this last show from the wings is an angel who looks like a woman — a Dangerous Woman, in fact, and that’s the name she goes by. Dangerous Woman is played by Virginia Madsen, a luminous bombshell in a white trenchcoat: With her down-to-earth breathlessness, she’s a spiritual descendent of Barbara Stanwyck. Dangerous Woman has come to earth on a mission, and not even the down-on-his-luck ’40s-style gumshoe, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline, in a performance of supremely offhanded elegance), who handles security for the show, can stop her — although he’s so smitten with her that he doesn’t really try to, anyway.
So there you have it: An 81-year-old filmmaker gives us a movie in which the Angel of Death appears as a film noir goddess. The concept alone is a good indicator of how well Keillor’s and Altman’s sensibilities mesh. (It probably doesn’t hurt that both are Midwesterners.) “Youth” also makes an appearance in “A Prairie Home Companion” in the guise of Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan), Yolanda’s disgruntled teenage daughter, a writer of florid death poetry who will, on this last night of the show, get a chance to perform for the first time. The old guard must give way to the new.
Whatever “A Prairie Home Companion” has to say about aging, about death, about the mutability of art, is never stated outright: And yet it’s all there in the picture’s rambunctious collage of moods. (Ed Lachman’s cinematography unifies those shifting tones beautifully.) Altman and Keillor aren’t interested in planting their ideas; they’re content to let them drift, from background to foreground and back again. The movie suggests that our most random thoughts, the ones that cross our minds in dumb, meandering patterns when we’re supposed to be doing something serious and important, actually are important. There’s a lovely backstage scene in which Yolanda and Rhonda chatter about their career, trading non sequiturs that interlock with a surreal “click.” Lola sits nearby, rolling her eyes. And spontaneously, Streep’s Yolanda begins singing: “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling,” goes the tune — it’s an old Methodist hymn, one that’s frequently played during the altar call, and also at funerals. As Yolanda sings, in her quavery, pale-amber voice, she rolls her chair over toward her sister and wraps her arms around her. Streep and Tomlin are lovely here — they seem to be giving one performance, jointly, a kind of Frick-and-Frack harmonized improvisation. The friction between the characters throws off sparks of love.
Keillor, the movie’s master of ceremonies, isn’t so much an actor as a presence, but he’s an unassumingly mighty one. With his high, brainy forehead and question-mark eyes, he looks a bit like one of the Brownies, the mischief makers and doers of good deeds drawn by the Victorian-era cartoonist Palmer Cox. His G.K. listens, half-seduced and half-bemused, as the Dangerous Woman explains that, before she became an angel, she was a big fan of his show. In fact, she tells him, she was actually listening on the night she died, while she was driving to meet her lover: She laughed so hard at one of his dumb jokes that she swerved off the road. “Because of your story, I lost control and I died,” she tells him, brightly, as if she were writing him a standard fan letter. “So you killed me in a way. Isn’t that interesting?” G.K. responds the way any sensible person would: By raising an eyebrow — because what could he possibly say?
That’s a wonderful, sideways-slanted fragment, the kind of semi-meaningless exchange that Altman likes to use to get us, and himself, thinking. Altman, his fairly recent heart transplant notwithstanding, knows he can’t go on forever, and “A Prairie Home Companion” is the kind of corny-joke memorial that a director responsible for lines like “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass so much” (from “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) might concoct for himself.
Altman has become a symbol of the old guard to younger moviegoers who are sick of hearing the old-timers (and older critics) go on about his glory days. I hate to frame the argument as a disparity between the old and the young. I don’t believe the number of moviegoers who truly care about movies has diminished that much since the ’70s. But the parameters of what we get to see, and how it’s presented to us, have changed drastically. For many lovers of movies, the Netflix queue has become the polar North of our moviegoing habits.
Given the range of movies being made in America today — along all the gradations of the indie scale, and sometimes even in Hollywood — it’s absurd to claim that the time for doing great work is over. But doing great work, and getting it seen, is certainly harder than ever, and I believe Altman is facing that reality head-on in “A Prairie Home Companion,” not so much for his sake, but for ours. He knows that after he’s gone, that’s one of the challenges we’ll be left with.
One of the things that has always bothered me about the critics locked in the “golden age of the ’70s” mentality is that they ended up treating filmmakers like Altman and Scorsese and Coppola as the end of something, rather than a beginning. The message to everyone born after 1960 was, “You shoulda been there, kids — it was great. But it’s all over now.”
But even if Altman, in “A Prairie Home Companion,” seems wistful for the days when filmmaking was done, and watched, differently, I suspect he doesn’t have as much reverence for the ’70s as many critics do. His sense of community is too strong to want to shut people out of experience — as a filmmaker (and even as a maker of sometimes not-so-great movies), hasn’t his lifelong goal been to draw them into it?
And so, late in “A Prairie Home Companion,” by the time the whole ensemble takes the stage to sing “In the Sweet By and By” — a song that is, in the strictest sense, about moving optimistically toward the afterlife, but one that could also be simply about striding toward the uncertainty of the future — it becomes clear that this movie isn’t just a lament for the past, a case of an old man making a movie about olden times. Altman, along with his cast, is singing for all of us, for those of us who continue to love movies no matter how often we get burned. Maybe we’re dinosaurs. But we’re all dinosaurs, together.