As a radio show, A Prairie Home Companion has so far enjoyed a 32-year run. Its mission? Delighting Middle America with a mixture of folk, country and bluegrass music, comedy sketches and, of course, Garrison Keillor's own brand of homey joke- and storytelling. The stories are heartstring-plucking tales of Lake Wobegon and its churchgoing denizens, the commercials are comic spoofs, the humor is tongue-in-cheek, and the charm and heart seem to always ring true.
The movie is intended, in director Robert Altman's words, as a "fictional documentary." It represents the radio show's final broadcast, mixing the familiar live stage presentation with a bird's-eye view of what goes on behind the scenes.
Keillor's screenplay tells the "story" of an assorted cinematic ensemble that includes: Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson, a singing sister duo who are simultaneously nostalgic and crusty; Yolanda's teenage daughter, Lola, who writes poems about suicide; Guy Noir (originally voiced by Keillor in radio show sketches), brought to life as the show's bumbling slapstick security chief; and Dusty and Lefty, the bawdy cowhand songsters. Add to that mix Angel Asphodel, a white trench coat-clad woman who metaphorically represents the death of the show, and an investor from Texas who has purchased the theater and wants to turn it into a parking lot. Then there's Keillor himself, who rattles off commercial jingles in his sleep and spends most of his time rambling endless yarns of days gone by.
Yolanda sincerely loves her daughter and wants her to sing on air in hopes of getting her big break. She also speaks fondly of the girl's deceased father. When hearing Lola's morbid poetry, Yolanda lets loose with a string of cliché yet optimistic life mottos that encourage an attitude of gratitude and perseverance. She and Rhonda sing a tender song in memory of their mother and another friend. Other tunes shed a positive light on friendship and hope.
For all their idiosyncrasies, the Prairie cast members seem to truly care about one another and their history together. Angel Asphodel, who claims to go around "comforting people that are desperately sad," does so for a woman who's lost her lover. "Forgive him his shortcomings," she advises, "and thank him for all his love and care."
More than a handful of hymns and spiritual songs get played, and others include overt biblical allusions, references to Jesus and talk of a better day in New Jerusalem. A few, including an a cappella version of "Softly and Tenderly," speak poignantly of the peace and hope only God can bring.
God is explicitly mentioned throughout the movie. Usually, He's spoken of with respect (or at the very least with familiarity, if not reverence). Sometimes, however, He's included as either part of a one-liner or the blame for cynicism. One of Lola's poems states, "God is love, but He doesn't necessarily go out of His way to catch you."
While expressing deep love for gospel music, Rhonda and Yolanda give Christians the backhand for being two-faced and judgmental. One story they tell backstage involves a group of Christian families sending a girl to jail for accidentally stealing a 59-cent doughnut. The Texas investor, who mentions that he's a believer, misapplies Jesus' words in Matthew 16:25 when hearing that his plan to shut down the theater will put the cast members out of work. "There's always something else in life," he coldly reasons. "You have to lose your life before finding it."
Asphodel, who became an angel after she died (which raises serious theological problems if one is to pursue the logic) speaks of her earthly activities: "I come to do His work ... and praise His holy name." Yet mingled with her worshipful job description are other more questionable claims. "[I put] tears on statues," she says. "One time I put the face of the Lord on a bowl of oatmeal. But mostly I just take people up to see God." When a man dies, she tells a mourner that "every sparrow is remembered." Later, she asks a man if he knows about "fullness of time in the spirit, which upholds and sustains us all in this world. Amen."
The subject of sex comes up sporadically in the form of fodder for cheap laughs. For example, one of Guy's monologues describes a beautiful woman in a form-fitting Mount Rushmore T-shirt, adding that "those guys never looked so good." In an ending act with Dusty and Lefty (despite being warned by a stage director about not singing "obscene" songs), the two launch into a coarse "bad joke" routine that includes veiled one-liners about erections, breasts, necrophilia, intercourse and the like.
Asphodel says she died while on her way to meet up with a lover. Alluding to the possibility of the couple having sex, Guy asks her if she would feel anything. (Her answer is simply, "Love.") Two cast members are seen nuzzling backstage. One of them leaves to prepare for a romantic rendezvous in his dressing room, and he's later described as wearing only his boxers.
We get a glimpse of Yolanda in her bra as she changes. Her sister later comments on her cleavage-revealing blouse, to which she reasons that it's buttoned up as far as possible. Keillor is shown in his boxers. A story is twice told of Lola's father losing his swim trunks while flying a kite. We see a couple of small old-fashioned pinups in the background, and learn that Yolanda and Keillor were romantically involved.
No body count per se, but when Guy comes to believe that Asphodel is the angel of death he asks her to get rid of the investor in hopes of saving the theater. We later hear that he has died in a wreck. Guy hits his head on a desk and falls off a bar countertop. A story is told of a man shooting a gun in a plane, causing it to crash. When Lola ad-libs a song, she mentions several ways a woman kills her man.
Drug and Alcohol Content
With private-eye style, Guy rolls and lights a cigarette, then pours himself a drink from a liquor flask. He's shown smoking on other occasions as well. Later, he grabs a bottle of champagne, opens it, pours two glasses and drinks with a pregnant associate (nothing is made of her poor choice). A couple of other characters drink what appears to be hard liquor. Dusty jokingly cross-references liquor and sex.
Other Negative Elements
As Guy teases a stage manager about being pregnant and single, he lifts up her shirt to expose her stomach. "You might want to cut back on the desserts and beer ... and sex with men," he laughs.
The teenage Lola is obsessed with death, and it reflects in her poetry and impromptu song lyrics. Both make reference to committing suicide by attaching a hose to a car's tailpipe.
As a director's director, Robert Altman crafts each of his glacierly paced but intricately constructed movies like an obscurely referenced joke: You either "get it" or you don't. A Prairie Home Companion is no exception. Midway through, Angel Asphodel asks Keillor to re-tell a joke that she heard in her final moments on earth—one that, in a roundabout way, caused her passing. She's hoping this time it'll make some sense. So Keillor begins: "Two penguins are standing on an ice flow. The first penguin says, 'You look like you're wearing a tuxedo.' Then the second penguin says, 'What makes you think I'm not?'"
Keillor pauses and looks to the woman, expecting a reaction. After desperately trying to see the humor, she gives up and asks with complete sincerity, "What makes that funny?"
I (and quite a few other people around me) just groaned. But a few moviegoers let loose a chuckle or two. So it would seem that Keillor and Altman are birds of a feather. You either get them or you don't.
It just too bad their film's rambling vignettes climax with Lefty and Dusty's tribute to bad jokes. As they babble on, the show's stage director laments, "Why not?! Let's just wreck the show!" Not that they will. A Prairie Home Companion, the movie, certainly isn't going to wreck A Prairie Home Companion, the radio show, no matter how it ends. I just wish Keillor and Co. had stuck to the show's clever "commercials," gospel greats and tales of Lake Wobegone, and left the rest backstage.