As meditations on mortality go, Robert Altman's new movie is a pretty lively, warm-blooded affair. The 81-year-old director here teams up with fellow Midwesterner Garrison Keillor to produce a motion picture that's not merely unique in his body of work but unique, period.
What an inspired notion to bring Keillor's venerable radio show to the big screen and use it as a jumping-off point for the ruminations and reflections of both artists. Fans of the 32-year-old broadcast in particular will be grateful for and enchanted by this cinematic backstage pass.
The premise of Keillor's script is that a Texas conglomerate has purchased the station on which the program airs as well as the famed Fitzgerald Theatre from which it emanates each Saturday evening in St. Paul, Minnesota. The new owners view the "Home Companion" as a dispensable anachronism and, after one final performance, the show will go on no longer.
It is this farewell broadcast that Altman brings us, though neither its stoic host nor any of his guests actually bids their faithful audience farewell. This is a movie about endings and beginnings -- the former by far outnumbering the latter -- and about the different ways in which different types of people deal with them.
As showtime approaches, we listen in as the Johnson sisters, Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) and Yolanda (Meryl Streep) recount the history of the family's singing career to Yolanda's daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan). The occasion has them in a sentimental frame of mind, and they share recollections of their mother, ex-husbands and sisters who once were also part of the act. "The Carter Family was just like us, only famous," observes Streep's character before explaining how the group was denied music-industry immortality by a glazed donut.
The scene acclimates the audience to the film's tone, which is wistful, whimsical, sometimes fatalistic and always unhurried. Keillor is the embodiment of unhurriedness. We first find him backstage just moments before the show is to hit the airwaves telling long, rambling stories to staff and fellow performers when he should be pulling up his pants. This is as close to a race against the clock, or any other standard Hollywood device, that Altman will employ in the course of the film's 105 minutes. Will Keillor make it to the mike on time? Of course. And as the Fitzgerald's curtain rises, he snaps to, takes charge and becomes the master of ceremonies known and loved by millions.
It's hard to say which is more entertaining -- the show itself or the events that unfold behind the scenes. On stage, Keillor, the show's real-life band, and sound-effects man Tom Keith mix it up with musically gifted movie actors and actresses. Streep and Tomlin (who played a singer in the director's 1975 milestone Nashville) totally kick out the country jams. Who would have guessed Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly would make a dynamic cowboy duo? Altman rolls the dice, giving a number of Keillor's most beloved fictional characters familiar Hollywood faces. The gamble pays off. Harrelson and Reilly play cowpoke pals Dusty and Lefty, reimagined as singers of good-natured songs filled with hysterically bad puns.
Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir, the haplessly hardboiled gumshoe who's been "trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions" for decades now, while managing to remain as sublimely clueless as ever. Down on his luck, he's stooped to handling security for the theater. As the final show plays out, the most persistent question on his mind concerns the identity of a beautiful woman in a white trenchcoat (Virginia Madsen). Visible to Noir and a few others but unseen by everyone else, she turns out to be an angel of death, a revelation that only puts a slight damper on his pick-up patter.
There's much talk of death in this movie. A character departs from this world after singing one last song. "The death of an old man is not a tragedy," Madsen declares. She reveals that she, in fact, died when she lost control of her car while laughing at a joke Keillor told on a broadcast one Saturday evening. When members of his crew implore the host to say a few words to the audience about the unexpected loss, he declines, "I'm of an age," he explains, "when, if I started to do eulogies, I'd be doing nothing else." "Don't you want to be remembered?" Lohan asks. "I don't want them to be told to remember me," he replies.
Despite all the talk of the grave (or perhaps because of it), the film is uplifting, funny and touching in ways that few movies manage to be. As Altman announced at the Oscars, he's literally had a change of heart; it's surely no coincidence that this is the most genial, joyful work of his long career. You owe it to yourself to tune in. If you thought "A Prairie Home Companion" was a pleasure to listen to, wait 'til you see how much fun it is to watch.