Director Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion shares with his earlier film Nashville an interest in the American psyche, the talent of Lily Tomlin and a generous offering of country music. Both films, too, are signature Altman ensemble pieces with large casts and fine performances, often with an improvisatory element. But where Nashville delivered a set of diverse characters whose interconnected lives provided the film both complexity and a sense of profound mystery, A Prairie Home Companion finds Altman in a lighter mood–fewer characters, less complexity, and correspondingly less substance overall.
The location has shifted to the north, to St. Paul, Minnesota, home of a fictitious live radio variety show called "A Prairie Home Companion," paralleling the real radio show. The master of ceremonies is none other than Garrison Keillor, playing a fictional version of himself. Keillor also penned the screenplay and some of the songs.
There is a plot, somewhat thinly conceived. The radio station has been purchased by a Texas conglomerate which is shutting down the show. Tommy Lee Jones appears in a cameo as the "Axeman," the corporate officer assigned to this downsizing. Virginia Madsen (Sideways, Firewall) has a bit more to do as she wanders through the film as an angel of death, there to escort someone to the other side. Just who her client will be is about the only element of suspense in a nearly plotless scenario. The death of a show, the death of a character–A Prairie Home Companion has an overlay of melancholy in these elements, acknowledging the transitory nature of life and human endeavors.
But in the context of the radio show and its performers, there’s an affirmation of life, particularly in the characters of the Johnson Sisters, a country duet act. Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), both rather long in the tooth, chatter endlessly (including talking over each other, an old Altman technique) both on the air and off, as well as singing a generous helping of songs. Streep (Angels in America, The Hours), especially, seems to be improvising a good deal of the time; she also seems to be enjoying herself thoroughly playing a down-home optimist with a strong determination to survive. Tomlin (I Heart Huckabees, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe) makes the perfect wry complement.
Woody Harrelson (North Country, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) and John C. Reilly (Chicago, Criminal) make up a second singing team, one with a predilection for a touch of raunch. They lend some occasional amusement, but the characters are seriously underdeveloped. Kevin Kline (De-Lovely, The Emperor’s Club) plays Guy Noir, the bumbling backstage doorkeeper for the radio show who hasn’t given up on his life as a glamorous private eye. A major plus is Jearlyn Steele, another singer, here playing herself; her songs are standouts.
A Prairie Home Companion is worth a look, especially for the sheer enjoyment of watching Streep and Tomlin do their schtick, but the film is, at best, Altman lite.