A Prairie Home Companion is the quintessential Robert Altman film, not in quality, but in style. There are few filmmakers whose style is as recognizable as his. He is probably one of the few, including Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch that if I turn on the TV and come upon a random part of a film of his, I can instantly say – “Hey, that looks like a Robert Altman film!” Through the years, Altman’s style has divided audiences’ opinion, even on such acclaimed films like MASH and Short Cuts. Heck, even Nashville had people disagreeing.
This film is not only a showcase of Garrison Keillor’s popular radio show, but also of Altman as a filmmaker. His career is unfortunately nearing it’s end, why with recent revelations of heart surgeries and things, any people think that A Prairie Home Companion might be Altman’s send-off. Altman and Keillor have in a way made this film about death. And although it is such morbid theme, Altman keeps the film’s tone light. His familiar meandering camera movements, improvised scenes, and talky, laid-back storytelling are his signatures and he definitely includes, and actually fills the whole film with them.
The film chronicles the events that happen during the last show of A Prairie Home Companion, since a businessman named the Axeman, has bought the theater which houses the radio show. The show has a lot of characters in it including the host – G. K. (Garrison Keillor playing as himself), then there is Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) who is one of the show’s most popular characters because of his crazy antics and matter-of-fact humor. There are also Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reillly) who are the singing cowboys whose songs include verses about Midwestern life, pretty women, and jokes that are both funny and offensive. Yolanda (Meryl Streep), Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), and Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan) are also here to talk a lot, write suicide letters, and sing songs as well. And of course there is the angel of death (Virginia Madsen) who haunts the theater and is the big symbol in this film.
Robert Altman is also a presence in the film, as he seems to be playing the observer of what’s going on. The camera goes from act to act, from character to character, and while it might sound like a documentary, a lot of this stuff is made up and is obviously fake. Plus, Altman has staged scenes, obviously, that are part of the backstage goings-on and his amazingly witty dialogue is just way too good in quality to even feel real.
The acting here is superb, with Keillor doing a great job as himself, which is even more magnified by the fact that he really isn’t an actor. The big stand-out, predictably, is Kevin Kline. Not only is Noir the liveliest of characters, but Kline’s charisma, delivery, and attitude is the best of the lot. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin basically do what they did at the Oscars when they gave Altman his Honorary Award. Their non-stop talking and completing each other’s sentences did get on my nerves though after a while, but still, I recognize how hard that type of stuff is to do. It’s amazing if you compare their conversation to say a conversation in a film like Poseidon makes it apparent how risky Altman’s style is in today’s state of cinema. Everyone else does a fine job acting as far as I’m concerned. Heck, even Maya Rudolph, which cements Altman’s belief in good acting to create an atmosphere that is theatric.
The look of this film is definitely very theatrical, as expected. It is also very beautiful and the set design is exceptionally well done considering the type of film this is. The stage is dark though, but the backstage is all lit up and looks comforting in order to oppose the Axeman’s plans for it. A big mention should go to the costume design and its elegance and style that is over-the-top, but contained. I really smell an Academy Award nomination for this film in this area. But what about the music? I’m glad to say that there isn’t a bad piece of music in the whole film. While i’s not a musical, it is structured around a few musical numbers.
So if you’re looking for a laid-back Altman film, which also includes themes that might not fit the beauty and innocence of the film, you should definitely see this. Yes, at times the movie is a little too silly for it’s own good and the messages it sends get muddled, but most of the time the film accomplishes what it needs to. The music is great too. This is a movie that is tough to hate, unless you’re a cynic (even though cynicism is a part of it), or someone who doesn’t like the music, which is also unlikely. Altman is back in form here and this film has inspired me to watch some of his previous stuff like Short Cuts and Gosford Park again.