When something goes wrong on live radio, Prairie Home Companion, both the radio show performed in the film and the movie itself come alive. It’s like two men fishing placidly in the middle of a calm lake until one gets hold of a mighty rebellious fish and both men jump to instant action. One of the few and far between moments that jump Prairie Home Companion to activity include a duct-tape gag which Garrison Keillor, the voice of the popular variety show both in reality and in this film, and other performers improvise after Molly, the assistant stage manager, who’s usually the only one insisting on maintaining order and decorum, flubs the cue sheets. The three-to-four minute gag thoroughly entertains you as Garrison and the Johnson sisters (played by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) cook up wackiest uses for a duct-tape while the sound-effects guy (Tom Keith) gives complementary dog howls, helicopter noise etc until Molly (who’s played by SNL regular Maya Rudolph) finds the right sheet. It doesn’t just end there: Yolanda Johnson (Streep) also manages to convey her dejection towards Garrison’s failed romance with her during the gag.
The problem with Robert Altman’s ‘Prairie home Companion’ is that it stays only marginally memorable; everyone in the film is too comfortable and laid-back, listlessly chattering and bantering with each other and the audience is expected to be all ears for these strangers’ plain talk. Until the duct-tape moment, you begin to grow impatient for there is nothing much to keep you really interested. We learn in the beginning that Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the radio show’s security director who takes his work too seriously, is in search of a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen) who’s been lurking in the theater. It’s the final day for the esteemed radio show and its regulars which include Johnson sisters and two singing cowboys (played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) perform for one last time before the theater is demolished to build a parking lot. The mysterious woman in white is revealed to be Asphodel, an angel who visits the show to comfort its people and escort one to afterlife. Another visitor includes a businessman called ‘The Axeman’ (played by Tommy Lee Jones) who’s the one responsible for pulling the plug on the show.
The fate of these people is touching but it never touches you, for these people turn out as nothing more than broad caricatures whose lives are hardly used or explored in the plot. Streep’s Yolanda is a chirpy, twittery, humble, good-natured and caring woman who can sing really well and Streep shows us such a woman during the film but there’s nothing else she can do. Her character has little more to do than to define how such a character talks, moves, acts and sings and watching Streep do so much for a role with minimal character development makes us a little exhausted with her Yolanda. Her sister Rhonda (Tomlin) is less girly and bubbly and while Tomlin doesn’t overdo her performance like Streep, she doesn’t stay memorable both onstage and backstage. Yolanda’s daughter Lola is played by perennially-suffering Lindsey Lohan, whose character likes penning depressing suicide poems but is very much delicate at heart and empathetic towards everybody. Lindsey isn’t distracting until the last scene where she tries (badly) playing a busy workaholic with plenty of things on her mind.
The two cowboys played by Woody Harrelson and John Reilly are the humorously irreverent sidekicks who bring in the laughs with their risqué humor and bad jokes (rather jokes in poor taste), another high point in the film. But again these aren’t two cowboys we’ve been following through the years and so they’re like new-kids-on-the-block for us when they appear in the film. The lack of exposition in Prairie Home Companion makes every character and every situation seem superficial and wispy. Either the film is for fans only (yet many of the characters except Garrison and Guy Noir weren’t part of the radio show either) or the film lacks vitality. Was Asphodel the angel really needed in the film? Or did Altman see her as a greater symbol not just for the film but also for himself? One thing we know is that Altman got all the comfort from her soon after filming. Bad joke, huh?