Director Robert Altman has explored many themes in his extensive career, ranging from corrupt Hollywood politics (The Player) and the insanity of war (MASH), to backstabbing and homicide among the British elite (Gosford Park). What he’s never really done, up until now, is kick off his shoes and have relaxed, unadulterated fun. In A Prairie Home Companion, Altman teams up with radio magnate Garrison Keillor, who has hosted a unique hit variety show—loaded with folksy music, sardonic life lessons, and comedy bits—from the Fitzgerald Theater in Minnesota for the past three decades. As the first character in the movie points out, “it’s the kind of program that died 50 years ago, only someone forgot to tell the performers.”
A Prairie Home Companion, which marks the screenwriting debut of Keillor (nicknamed G.K.), is the type of feel-good, jovial time that makes people want to go to the movies. What it lacks in plot it more than makes up for in chuckles and consistently cheeky humor. The story is simple: the radio show, undergoing a fictional makeover for the movie, is being bought out and discontinued by a Texas corporation, represented by The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones). On a rainy Saturday night in front of a live audience, this show will be their last. The characters seem oblivious to their impending wrap-up—never underestimate the power of denial—and go on trying to ignore the fact that their one-of-a-kind show will soon rest in peace.
Altman, in his trademark style, has compiled a truly outstanding cast to perform an oddball assortment of roles: Kevin Kline is Guy Noir, the show’s clumsy security guard that speaks in Raymond Chandler similes; John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson are singing cowboys Lefty and Dusty, who implement perverse metaphors into their tunes; Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are the singing Johnson sisters, constantly interrupting and speaking over each other; Lindsay Lohan plays Streep’s daughter Lola, a sullen teenager who wears black nail polish and writes poems about suicide; and Virginia Madsen is Dangerous Woman, the prettiest grim reaper since Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black.
The movie, full of riotous improvisations and fantastic musical bits performed by the actors, is essentially without a defined plot, and it doesn’t need one. It’s packed with great comic bits (the best one involving a live jingle for Duct Tape gone awry) and a diverse range of musical performances spanning bluegrass, country, and gospel. Lefty and Dusty offer a hilariously offensive tune called “Bad Jokes” full of politically incorrect humor. (For one verse, they banter: “I think my wife might have died." "Why do you think that?" "Well, the sex is the same, but the dishes are stacking up.”)
The pairing of Altman and GK is a stroke of genius. Even if you’re not a devout fan of Altman’s previous offerings, A Prairie Home Companion is a wonderful change of pace for the 81-year-old director, who still has plenty of tricks up his aging sleeve. Likewise for G.K.: his show is tailored towards certain tastes, but he writes tongue-in-cheek dialogue effortlessly and steals scenes as a fictionalized version of himself in the movie; he, too, is likely to convert his own share of new recruits. The actors are all sensational, and fans of Lohan will (hopefully) be happy to see her veering away from brainless teenybopper roles and showing her promise as an actress—even if it’s only briefly explored here. A Prairie Home Companion proves that movie magic can still be provided even without CGI explosions and huge budgets; sometimes less is more and in this case, there is more than enough joy to go around.