September 19, 2006 -- “A Prairie Home Companion” is a whimsical, good-natured, humorous, gentle movie about death. Death doesn't seem so bad in the way it is portrayed in this film, on the wings of a beautiful angel who has a soft spot in her heart for old songs and corny jokes. Oscar-winning director Robert Altman, whose movies are sometimes bitter and cynical (like “Short Cuts”) can also make films that are whimsical and heartwarming (like “Cookie's Fortune”). This is one of the latter variety.
The story starts with a mysterious woman in white (played by Virginia Madsen of “Sideways”), who comes nosing around the old theater where a famous radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, is down to its last performance. This radio show, of course, is still going strong on public radio stations, but in this film it is a local show carried on a single station in Minnesota. It is an old-fashioned radio variety show, the kind that went out of fashion 50 years ago, the narrator, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline of “Life as a House”) drily notes. Noir is a detective who does security for the show, and he talks like a detective in a Raymond Chandler novel. The character, however, is as dense as the one Kline played in “A Fish Called Wanda.”
Most of the action centers around the last radio show and the performers, including a sister act, Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) along with Yolanda's morbid daughter, Lola (Lindsy Lohan of “Mean Girls), and a cowboy pickin' and grinnin' duo, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), who like to sing off-color songs and tell corny jokes. At the center of it all is G.K., Garrison Keillor, the master of ceremonies and sad-eyed crooner of ancient songs and deep-voiced teller of whimsical stories that defy belief. Keillor, of course, is the star of the real radio show on which this movie is based. He is so laid back he is almost in a coma for the entire movie. In addition to Keillor, a number of other people from the real radio show are in the movie, which is set in the actual theater which is the home of the real radio show.
The plot involves a character called “The Axman” (Tommy Lee Jones of “The Fugitive”) who is a corporate goon come to witness the last performance of the show and then pull the plug on it. There are also some deaths, an unexpected performance, some bad jokes and a lot of really old songs. Not much happens, really. This film is not about the destination, but the journey. Through it all, Keillor is like a rock. He refuses to give in to sentimentality, to give obituaries, to mark the occasion in any particular way. He simply puts on a show like he always has and he's adamant about it. This is the sort of thing that show business people do exceptionally well. They find a way to make the show go on. They have faith that things will work out somehow. This movie is full of that “can do” spirit.
The film is about death. The death of characters, the death of a long-running radio show. Lola Johnson writes poems about death. A character who is much like the angel of death hangs around the show. Keillor insists that there be no mourning, no memorials to mourn their passing. He treats the occasion just like it were any other show. For all he knows, the show will go on forever. If it ends, he will find a way to carry on somehow. In this way, show business folk are a hardy bunch. They keep looking ahead and keep going forward. Robert Altman, who is a lot closer to the end of his life than the beginning of it, might have this very attitude himself. The rest of us could learn something from that. This film rates a B.
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