Written by Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion presents itself as an onstage/backstage account of the vintage radio program's last show. A conglomerate has bought its station and intends to demolish St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater in which the show is performed. Keillor plays a version of himself, while his hard-bitten skit gumshoe Guy Noir is played by Kevin Kline in top comic form. Noir narrates, busybodies around in his role as "chief of security" and suggests he may just take physical action against Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones), the corporate heavy about to put a lot of people out of work.
The show's performers consist of the salty old wranglers Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly), who interrupt their cowboy ballads to tell slightly smutty jokes ("I'll show you my moonshine if you show me your juggs"), country singers Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) Johnson, who are the two surviving sisters of what used to be a family quartet, and gospel diva Jearlyn Steele as herself. The picture doesn't develop much in the way of a plot, but rather provides minimalist portraits of many characters. Those who know Altman's work from such ensemble films as M.A.S.H. , Nashville or Short Cuts have seen him work like this before, much more conveyed with suggestion than definition. Yolanda tells us that she once had an affair with Garrison and obviously still carries a torch for him. But we have to figure out that Garrison dumped her for Jearlyn by the way they almost touch and the way Jearlyn seems determined to put herself between Yolanda and her man.
Nothing that we see or hear rises above a middle range. The jokes are corny without making you either groan or laugh out loud. The singers can all carry a tune, but only Steele really rocks you with her voice and her pointed lyrics, "Why do we work so hard to get what we don't even want?" Keillor and Altman's point is to celebrate not the sensational, but the ordinary, the joy in storytelling and singing that we can all participate in as we go about our daily lives. We come in different packages, the film submits, different sizes, colors and ages. But we are mostly the same. We may associate sexual urges with the young, fit and beautiful, but the people having sex in A Prairie Home Companion -- and they're into it hot and heavy -- are a grizzled old crooner (L.Q. Jones) and the late-middle-aged lady (Marylouise Burke) who keeps the cast stocked with ham salad sandwiches. And through it all, death hovers in the edge of the shadows, here personified by a nurturing blonde (Virginia Madsen) whose presence means that somebody's time is just about up, and don't you fret, she'll be back for you later.
Years ago, Paul Simon wrote and starred in One Trick Pony, a movie that let the great singer/songwriter imagine himself as a failure. Here Keillor has clearly stopped to imagine the end of a career that has encompassed most of his adult life. A Prairie Home Companion says that though there is melancholy in such inevitable endings, there is not tragedy. Yolanda says we should embrace all that we have experienced, even the painful things because we are only the sum of our experiences. We are our individual histories, for better or worse, and the difference is seldom that great.
In the closing passages of A Prairie Home Companion, Altman's camera lingers on a bust of F. Scott Fitzgerald for whom the radio show's theater is named. And we can't help but think of Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, which worried mightily about the American dream and the toll of human longing. Fitzgerald's bust summons the film's epigraph from Gatsby's closing line: "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."