A Prairie Home Companion April 14, 2018
John C. Reilly
Tommy Lee Jones
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
sense of loss hangs in the air in 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion. It is about the fictional final show of the real-life, long-running radio show of the same name, and it also was the last film of the idiosyncratic Robert Altman, who would die just a few months after its release from leukemia at the age of 81.
Watching A Prairie Home Companion, it is apparent that Altman knew this would be his last movie and wanted the action to narratively parallel his departure. And obliquely, it does come across as a
celebration of his life and career. The dialogue is sentimental, frequently coated in dewy-eyed reminiscence. The characters are all very much aware that they’re saying goodbye to something they love, and such makes them intent on ensuring this be a night to remember.
The movie is nostalgic and melancholic, but it is hardly a cinematic elegy presented with downcast eyes and a lump in its throat. It is convivial, proud, and lived-in. In it, we watch as an assortment of stars – including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, and Virginia Madsen – cause trouble on and off stage at the aforementioned, concluding Companion show. Most of these people are playing country western singers: Streep and Tomlin are singing sisters (Lohan portrays Streep’s daughter); Harrelson and Reilly are longtime collaborators who are as good of humorists as they are harmonizers.
Backstage antics are mostly confined to remembrances of old times, with the occasional show biz disaster to keep the plot energized. On stage moments are heartfelt and memorable. The relationships and performances are sturdy and believable, the songs honeyed and belted with gusto. The wistful “one last show” sensibility is ever present, and in the end does the film become more about Altman waving goodbye than it does these characters fictitiously doing so.
It is a moving, striking film, filled with all the most recognizable of Altman staples (the naturalistic dialogue, the contradictory but lovable characters, the penchant for the comedically manic). For fans of the director, watching the movie will feel an awful lot like coming home, everything familiar and inviting and, in a way, partially identity-defining.
But to watch the film in 2018 is a curious experience. While it remains a luminous, bittersweet swan song, a fitting parting gift handed to us by one of the finest of filmmakers, it is also a tainted feature: Garrison Keillor, the host of the actual A Prairie Home Companion and among the film’s leads, was recently fired from his long-standing gig in part due to reports of sexual harassment and assault. The radio show has since been renamed; Minnesota Public Radio has worked to effectively erase him from the series, from which he had retired in 2016. Due to Keillor’s wrongs, the hard work of many – for decades – has been tarnished.
As such, it is easy to want to sweep the cinematic A Prairie Home Companion away in the same way we have the works of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, which can be historically appreciated but hardly beloved and rewatched in quite the same manner they were during the pre-Time’s Up era. I cannot bear, however, to treat this particular movie analogously: the film is, despite revolving around his primary work, not about Keillor. It is about Altman, a man who helped defined modern cinema and did not know about Keillor’s misdeeds.
We must watch A Prairie Home Companion with this in mind. Though we perhaps needn’t be so purposeful anyway – Keillor is so much a backdrop here that we look at all in front of us not necessarily as a cinematicized behind the scenes look at the radio show but rather something of a spiritual successor to 1975’s Nashville, Altman’s perfect quasi-portrait of American life. It is an Altman movie with a trademark sign at the end that has posthumously been dragged through the mud through no fault of his, or his wonderful ensemble’s, own. B+