The Long Goodbye
Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion grows from the frosty Minnesota soil. Its worldview is Buddhist by way of Scandinavia: Life is about suffering. It’s like the Grand Ole Opry plopped into a fragrant barn at the county fair. No one in Keillor’s Lake Wobegon actually complains (they persevere), and no one expects a miracle. Things can always get worse — and they do — but hard times will be over soon enough. Rhubarb pie and a toe-tapping ditty about the basic unfairness (and occasional joys) of life at least help pass the time on long Saturday nights in front of the radio.
Maybe Keillor was countering the counterculture by sending his first news from Lake Wobegon over the airwaves in the times-are-a-changin’-back year of 1974. Or maybe his playfully slippery tone — alternately parodying and celebrating mid-American nostalgia for old-fashioned hard work and righteous self-pity — allowed that only our close attention to a speaker’s nuances would prevent another Tricky Dick. (Is that condescension or inspiration in Keillor’s mock-heroic lilt? Might it be both?) Whatever the case, the host’s comically longwinded monologues on life in the invisibly small town have become damn near seditious in wartime.
Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is something of a different story, even though Keillor wrote it. What the maker of Nashville sees in the show, predictably, is not a self-made bandleader and oddball raconteur so much as another democratic ensemble of musicians and assorted stagehands who come together in the service of maintaining their insular artists’ colony in an inhospitable climate. Tellingly, Altman never shows the audience: For this gently fictionalized backstage musical set at the show’s real home in St. Paul, the audience is Robert Altman, and so is the master of ceremonies. Keillor’s “G.K,” introduced in his boxer shorts, still ironing his trousers only minutes before curtain call, would rather perform backstage than onstage — perhaps because his stories at the microphone here are limited to screwball pitches for duct tape and Powdermilk Biscuits (“made from whole wheat raised by Norwegian bachelor farmers, so you know they’re good for you”), with nary a word about Wobegon.
There are characters in the movie: the Johnson sisters from Oshkosh, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep), county-fair-circuit singers whose loopy chats before showtime wander from the dangers of glazed doughnuts to the pleasures of rubber bands; the Old Trailhands, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), a pair of bad-joke-cracking cowboy crooners; and a hard-boiled but clumsy security guard called Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a familiar figure from Keillor’s actual show. The flimsiness of these characters ends up adding to the movie’s charm. These aren’t really Midwestern radio performers, just movie stars who have signed up for one more improv party with Altman. The director is chiefly interested in capturing the musical performances, which carry a casually infectious, low-key energy, even (or especially) when the stars are off-key.
Keillor’s modest subservience to Altman’s group dynamic feels downright gallant, and in the context of what is, by a wide margin, the veteran director’s most humanistic movie, it certainly has its rewards. The mood is exceedingly chatty but laid-back, which is new for the 81-year-old Altman. The director amends his copyrighted style ever so slightly: The dialogue here doesn’t overlap so much as cascade; the zooms suggest not a biologist squinting through a microscope but an old man leaning in for a tiny kiss.
The conceit allowing this warm elegy is that a corporate “ax man” from Texas (Tommy Lee Jones) is on his way to close down the theater and the show along with it. In any other Altman movie, this might have occasioned the director’s defiant resistance or bitter vindication rather than what we have here, which is something closer to Oh, well — it was fun while it lasted. Keillor and Altman know that there are forces much greater than fiction or even fate these days. The optimist’s warmth — inspired by Keillor’s Wobegon resolve and Altman’s twilight gentility — is that the artists will endure anyway.