Robert Altman finally got his Oscar in 2006 – but it wasn’t for a specific movie. It was a lifetime achievement, a handout, something you give to the best kid in class just to shut him up. Looks like the Oscar was wasted, because his “lifetime” is far from over – judging by Prairie Home Companion, Altman is still the man. Even when he takes such a frivolous, easygoing subject as live radio – he manages to infuse it with so much class – it’s a marvel to watch, and a pleasure to listen to his characters. After watching his movies, without fail, I always want to see another of his movies. Not the same one – that’s overkill, but another film, with other actors, doing the same overlapping, observational, very personal dialogue. This is as close as you get to the concept of “putting a bunch of actors around a table and turning on a camera”. There’s a show on TV that does this – called “Dinner for Five” – watch it, if you’re an Altman fan. And go check out his other movies.
With Altman, a film can get to you in many levels. There’s the main plot – always engaging and intelligent; there are the players – no matter what the company he gathers, they just happen to click together, and their words stream into a wonderful, familiar universe that you and them are part of; and there are the visuals – from bare necessities to heavy Freudian or Jungian symbolism. Altman never overkills with any of these three layers (perhaps a bit overacting on the players’ part – but that’s understandable), he just lays out everything for viewer to grasp, or miss. And a lot of what you take out of the film depends on your mood going in. You won’t feel like you missed anything, but you may feel differently when you watch the same movie later, with a different mood, or with a different company. To me, A Prairie Home Companion is a movie about old co-workers who over time became old friends, and their shared work became their life. To others – it’s a movie about letting go of the past, and accepting death. To many – it’s just a film about live radio, the loyal audience, and shenanigans behind the curtain.
First of all take a look at the players. Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin… How can you resist such a cast? Do you even care about the plot, when you see these people come in and out of frame, sharing their characters, their thoughts with each other and with you? It’s remarkable how easy these people disappear into characters, and how compelling their stories are. They know each other, and finish each other’s sentences. This hilarious in-joke works especially well between Tomlin and Streep, who truly resemble real-life sisters. It’s a little less convincing with Harrelson and Reilly, but you can make believe that those two are dirty-talking mock-cowboys with tons of filthy jokes up their sleeves. The show just moves on from art to act, regardless of what’s going on behind the curtain, and what business decisions are being made to jeopardize this show’s, even the theater’s existence.
The main plot has to do with the last performance these people have together. Their theater has been bought, and the lot can make more money if it’s leveled and turned into a parking area. So, after years of performing the same act, with the same familiar faces, the actors are faced with this sudden reality of being unwanted, unnecessary, and unemployed. They still put on a show, while contemplating (in person, off-stage, and even on-stage) this change. All the while, their never-stopping personal lives need to be attended, reflected. This all goes on in the space of the theater (similar to “Noises Off”), as everyone anticipates the arrival of “Axe Man” (Tommy Lee Jones) who will officially end this production and literally lock everyone out after the performance ends.
Christopher Guest had a similar anxiety film Waiting for Guffman – but it was a comedy, pure and unrestrained. Peter Bogdanovitch’s Noises Off was a bit more personal, a bit more dramatic, but still it was a laugh-fest. Prairie Home Companion gives these people entire lives, relationships outside the theater, but confines them to their jobs and their co-workers. They piece together the rest, creating a group of friends, who have grown together and will walk out together, but not necessarily be in the same room in a few short months. It’s a little sad, with tiny moments of tragedy, but it’s also optimistic about life’s little surprises.
You don’t have to be a radio fan to enjoy the movie, and you don’t need to be a theater fan to get the in-jokes. With Altman – no matter the plot, it’s all about how you get there, what words you choose to express yourself, how you part with past, how you embrace the reality. It’s a wonderful cast, and a joy to watch. Check it out.