No encore.

A Prairie Home Companion

Well, this is surely my favorite film of the year thus far.

Oh sure, if you’re looking for clean character arcs or crystalline structure or any semblance of plot complexity in your filmgoing experience, let me just conclude the review right here: don’t go, you’ll hate it. The characters, some of them borrowed from comedy skits, are largely one-note, and rarely ‘develop’ in any conceivable way. Despite the seemingly foolproof conception of following the performance of a live radio show in real time, the narrative still somehow finds time to dawdle. Little 'stories' sometimes emerge, which is no guarantee that they'll wrap up. The script sets its simple premise in motion, following it through a number of rambling conversations and musical numbers, doling out exposition almost at random, often to no particular eventual purpose in terms of guns as seen in Act I going off at the conclusion.

But if anything is clear at all in this film, it’s that director Robert Altman and creator/writer/co-star Garrison Keillor have absolutely no interest in proper dramatic structure or whatnot, preferring to force the viewer to confront ideas as they might in active life, though immediacy, the plain act of living in the present. That's because the film is about life's cruel nature: it's hopelessly inconclusive, despite the fact that it must conclude. It's really about death - that's the film's overriding theme. A pair of aged creators (Altman is 81, Keillor 63) reflecting on life's end, and what it can mean in the absence of real closure (a fantasy). And why should such reflection not match the jumpy rhythm of living? The form thus perfectly serves the film.

It all certainly doesn’t seem like much a departure for Altman - his prior film, 2003’s lovely, underappreciated The Company, adopted a similar (if less morbid) posture, coursing through clipped vignettes from the lives of ballet dancers, coupled with lengthy performance sequences, only the barest outline of a ‘story’ present at all. It's all a rush, working toward the next big show. This film also concerns a troupe of performers, though the timeline is much more constrained - here we follow the performance of a live radio show in more-or-less real time. But it’s also an adaptation, a big screen outing for Keillor’s much-loved weekly public radio broadcast, with familiar characters to juggle, beloved set pieces to transfer, and miscellaneous fan service to deliver. In a way, it’s a bit like a superhero film, drawing from a huge, diverse body of work, much of it frankly inappropriate for film, to pluck out the most appropriate portions of lore for inclusion in a wide-appeal picture whilst keeping the hardcore in mind.

This doesn’t dissuade Altman from his approach, to the film's grand benefit.

Keillor is also perfectly game, which won’t come as much of a surprise to those who’ve sat down and read his seminal 1985 tome Lake Wobegone Days, a sprawling, digression-prone mass of a novel that served in its lack of narrative cleanliness to indicate that a life defies such things, let alone a whole town of lives, and forget about the history of said town. Better to grasp fragments and incidents, and learn from the messiness of life what we can - such a feeling most certainly extends to this picture, affording us only unfiltered skits from life, always reminding us that tone is uncertain, and death offers no easy conclusion.

Thus, A Prairie Home Companion. Did I mention it's a comedy? An often very good one?

So what we have in the movie A Prairie Home Companion is a performance of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion, the camera darting from what's happening on stage to what's going on behind-the-scenes. The characters all suspect that it'll be the last performance of the show, as the local radio station that used to support them as been bought out by a Clear Channel-type corporate monolith. The show goes on.

There's something of a metafictional conceit going on in the plot, which will probably only matter to fans of the radio show - this film isn't meant to serve as an accurate representation of what goes on during a performance of A Prairie Home Companion the show, though I'm sure an awful lot of real stuff got thrown in. Rather, the film surveys a version of the show that exists within the confines of Keillor's fictional universe. There's plentiful references to Keillor's body of work, and fictional characters, who'd normally be played by Keillor and his cast on the actual show, walk around as actual participants in the fictional show, though pretty much all of the actual program's cast also turns up, and almost everything is shot in the real St. Paul-based Fitzgerald Theater, home of the authentic show.

So we have assorted familiar names drifting around, played by 'name' actors. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play Dusty and Lefty, singing cowboys of questionable taste and skill. Kevin Kline provides a flawless Guy Noir (easily the best of the show's recurring skits - the crowd I was with became visibly delighted at the very presence of his theme music), comically distracted detective, here moonlighting as security for the show and somewhat reimagined as a silent film-style slapstick figure (movies are visual!). There's also fictional musical guests, like Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep (sporting a killer midwestern accent) as a past-their-prime sister act, Lindsay Lohan carted along as Streep's unsuccessful poet daughter, who also sings (fairly well, I have to say - everyone in the cast did their own singing).

And then, to top things off, we get a pair of contrasting Death figures: Tommy Lee Jones as the brusque, all-business Axeman, sent to give everyone word that they're all out of jobs, and Virginia Madsen, who is a literal Angel of Death (as in, a supernatural being), but caring and philosophical. Thus, we even have overt fantasy elements in the movie, yet nothing detracts from Altman's and Keillor's vision - even Madsen's bizarre, stylized performance successfully marks her character as something apart from everything else (all the more effective given the emphasis on messy 'real' life among all these fictions), something that can't really be understood but has to be accepted. Death. Keep your eyes peeled; Altman sometimes hides Madsen in the background of shots, the presence of death creeping over the whole production, and indeed all of life's affairs.

But there's plenty of time for song and laughter. I generally feel that 60%-75% of A Prairie Home Companion (the real radio show) is good on any given week, depending on what the skits are. Good news: the excellent music is almost totally retained, the skits are largely replaced with the behind-the-scenes material, and what skitting there is happens to be among the better material (ah, bad jokes). Bad news: no news from Lake Wobegone (which is never even mentioned in the film), presumably because the town actually exists in the 'world' of the film, removing any need for the fictional Keillor to write stories about it and keeping the film's running time down to 105 minutes. No matter - the whole work is suffused with Keillor's worldview, palpable in Streep's fatigued-yet-spirited words with her sister and daughter, the clash between religion and those practicing it, and Keillor's own refusal to eulogize the dead, preferring to take life's pain as it comes, and absorb it. The film reacts in the same way, often intentionally puncturing 'serious' moments with fart jokes and slapstick, while maintaining an undercurrent of wistful loss to all the knee-slapping.

It most certainly doesn't all come together in the end, which is again the point. But let me assure you: the last five minutes of this film are about as perfect as I can imagine. There's a bit toward the conclusion with Guy Noir playing the piano that could have made a fine close, but the movie pushes futher into a coda, one that starts out corny, then becomes extremely depressing, then concludes on a note of luminous, lifting sadness. Sure, I'll call it a comedy, but this is a very sad film in the end (especially for those who enjoy the show), but it's a type of sadness that refreshes, that leaves one feeling cleansed, renewed. Ready to step out of the theater, and back into the life that this fantasy so disarmingly matches.