Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes, an optometrist’s billboard on the road to Jay Gatsby’s mansion, stared patiently out over the Jazz Age, without blinking, without judgment, without tears. In their pitiless observation of America drowning in its own bootleg liquor and easy money, the eyes might well represent F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. Those wise but silent eyes must have known that someday Gatsby’s and America’s fantasy world must come to an end, but it is an end that evokes little pity. It was a great ride. Would that every man could love so deeply or live so fully.
Fitzgerald’s ghost stalks Robert Altman’s endearing new film A Prairie Home Companion. The story is set in the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn. The author’s portrait, in profile like the Arrow Collar ads so popular in the 1920’s, looks down benignly, whimsically from the marquee. For the past 30 years, when the days of the downtown movie cathedrals had well passed, the refurbished theater provided a home for “A Prairie Home Companion,” a live weekly radio program featuring homespun humor, country music and tongue-in-cheek social commentary for its live studio audience and for its listeners out there in Radioland. It’s a branch of show business that ended 50 years ago, but as one character comments, no one told the cast of familiar, if aging, regulars. Time has finally caught up with them, however. This is to be their last broadcast.
Like Fitzgerald, Altman carefully situates the tone somewhere between regret and celebration, between satire and tribute. He opens the film on a rainy evening in Mickey’s Diner, a scene that clearly recalls the famous Edward Hopper painting. Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) provides a voice-over narration in the tough-guy jargon of a Philip Marlowe wannabe. Noir is in fact a private detective, at least he was until he ran out of beautiful but treacherous widows and ingenious insurance scams. He now serves as “security director” for the old Fitzgerald theater. Noir sits at the stage entrance at a table lit by a lamp with a metal shade, signs in the performers and answers the telephone. His role is traditionally given to a character called “Pops,” who wears a visor, vest and sleeve protectors. Guy Noir has a different self-image. He dresses in a pin-striped, double-breasted suit topped by a fedora, keeps his hair in place with an overdose of Wildroot and sports a pencil moustache that adds to his “irresistible good looks.” William Powell’s Thin Man would be jealous.
As Noir explains, the cast gathers at Mickey’s for a quick supper before heading off to the theater. Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) are all that remain of the four singing Johnson sisters. Yolanda’s teenage daughter Lola (Lindsay Lohan) prefers her own contemporary poems about suicide to cornball arias of the older generation. The singing cowboys, Lefty and Dusty (John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson), strut and swagger in front of the ladies. Fair enough. They want to assure themselves that no one will mistake them for ranch hands from “Brokeback Mountain.”
As airtime approaches, the old Fitzgerald slides into an odd kind of anarchy, presided over by Garrison Keillor (playing himself). The film’s fictional radio program is the exact replica of the show he has been doing for 30 years on public radio. G.K., as he’s known to the regulars, sets the tone for the others. He’s been doing the show for so long that he flies on automatic pilot. Using the word “unflappable” to describe him would suggest a level of manic frenzy that is foreign to the character. As the clock shows a mere two minutes to go, G.K. continues a philosophic conversation about the demise of the show and the passage of time. He has not even bothered to put on his pants. The Johnsons natter on about family business and the good old days. Lefty and Dusty elbow each other with good-natured insults. Noir wanders through the set, knocking over props while pretending he has something important to do. Out of desperation, Mollie (Maya Rudolph), the visibly pregnant stage manager, pretends to go into labor to get their attention. With her serious expression, her clipboard and headphones, she stands alone between the performers and absolute catastrophe, the only adult in a schoolyard moiling with sugar-crazed, attention-deficit preschoolers.
The show itself holds few surprises for those familiar with the real “A Prairie Home Companion.” G.K. serves as a down-home emcee who balances gracious introductions with folksy monologues of his own. He even does a singing commercial for Lake Superior herring in Norwegian. He also supplies a rich bass harmony to many of the musical numbers, a talent not particularly obvious to radio audiences. Lily Tomlin’s singing voice rivals G.K.’s in range. Pitched so low, her voice sounds as though it had been cured in years of cigarette smoke and marinated in bourbon, but it complements quite nicely the conventionally “sweet” country sound of Meryl Streep. Lefty and Rusty flavor their numbers with barnyard humor. The jokes are innocent enough, but they seem to enjoy playing to their bad-boy image, and that makes the stale jokes even funnier.
Musical performances dominate the central part of the film, but this is no filmed concert. Altman has far more important corndogs to fry. Throughout his career, Altman has explored not individuals but communities, especially those under stress. No one has used ensemble acting and fragmented plots with greater skill. “M*A*S*H” (1970) set the pattern. His films provoke laughter while cutting to the bone. When the jokes end, we realize he has been dealing with the human condition, with meaning and the struggle for survival. No Altman hero is an island. Think archipelago. Garrison Keillor’s gentle script (written with Ken LaZebnik) packages the reflections on the life and mortality of the human family in birthday party wrappings that mask their dark seriousness.
The show is closing because a faceless conglomerate from Texas has purchased the old Fitzgerald theater intending to turn the property into a downtown parking garage. The company sends its representative, known as “Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones), to deliver the legal papers. The Axeman fails to recognize the bust of Fitzgerald in his V.I.P. box. He does not even recognize the name, since he boasts to Noir that he is too busy to read books. As a particular affront to the memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he passes over the other offerings of the well-stocked bar and asks for plain water without ice! F. Scott would cringe at the very idea. He will demolish The Fitzgerald Theater and end the program, with little awareness that he is destroying an important element of American culture.
As an incongruous departure from the comic realism of the main storyline, a beautiful but mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) in a white trenchcoat drifts through the theater. She identifies herself as an angel who has been sent to lead the way from this present life into the next. But who exactly, or what, has she come for? Chuck Akers (L. Q. Jones), a veteran performer, does indeed die as he prepares for a comic tryst in his dressing room. Can Axeman assure himself that he has one more day to live? Or has she come to end the show itself? Or the theater? Or perhaps even the era in America’s history when such people and programs defined its innocence. But death or, better, transition comes to all people and all times. G.K. refuses to end the program with a farewell speech. He presents every show as though it is the last. This time it is. At the age of 81, perhaps Robert Altman feels he has reason to ponder the mysteries of mortality.
Altman ends his film with a brief coda, set at some indeterminate interval after the last show. Demolition crews have leveled the old theater. Noir rescues the bust of Fitzgerald; it provides a handy resting place for his fedora. The old gang meets once more at Mickey’s Diner. G.K. seems content with a job in a parking lot, and Lola, now quite the young lady, helps her mother set up a retirement fund. Rusty and Lefty join them, and the old cast talks enthusiastically about reviving the old show and going on tour, but everyone knows this will never happen. Their time has simply passed. Like Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age, it was fun while it lasted.