Even a minor Robert Altman effort is superior to most current moviemakers’ finest works, a fact confirmed by A Prairie Home Companion, the director’s touching (if a tad slight) musical-comedy tale of the (fictional) final performance of NPR stalwart Garrison Keillor’s titular stagebound radio show. Like Keillor, Altman is a born storyteller with a fundamental interest in community, and his portrait of the on-and-off-stage shenanigans surrounding Keillor’s last broadcast before home station WLT becomes part of an impersonal corporation is, first and foremost, a film about family. Beginning with a twilight image of a radio tower as its transmissions emanate out into the atmosphere (the intermingled sounds of different programs mirroring Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue), Altman’s latest radiates warm intimacy, its patient, inquiring cinematography – full of gliding swoops and zooms around its cast of characters as well as Keillor’s out-on-the-front-porch stage set – imparting a sense of unity and of things (art and life, love and death, happiness and sadness) hopelessly, symbiotically intertwined. Keillor and company’s down-home ditties and heartland tales augment this harmonious mood, touching upon country, romance, hard work and rhubarb pie while also, in the case of cowboy comedy team Dusty (John C. Reilly) and Lefty (Woody Harrelson), delivering a smattering of bawdy, scatological bad jokes.
The film’s spirit of inclusiveness is, at times, a bit too generous, with Kevin Kline’s slapsticky ‘40s-era security chief Guy Noir coming across as the primary (though not only) somewhat clunky, superfluous contrivance. Nonetheless, as each performer grapples with the show’s (and by extension their tight-knit mini-society’s) impending demise, the theme of mortality increasingly comes to hover over Altman’s latest like a melancholic pall, so much so that an angel of death (the ethereal Virginia Madsen) eventually appears to stalk the backstage environs. A tone of wistful sorrow is ever-present, from the disappointment of Yolanda Johnson (a mannered Meryl Streep) – one-half of a singing duo with sister Rhonda (Lilly Tomlin) – over the end of her relationship with Keillor, to her sad song intros about her dead mother, to her daughter Lola’s (Lindsay Lohan) suicide-obsessed poems, to the unexpected passing away of one of the show’s regulars. This prevailing focus on inevitable finality seems to subtly recast the proceedings as the iconic 81-year-old auteur’s own attempt at confronting both his advancing age and his legacy. Yet despite a pervasive feeling of things coming to an end, A Prairie Home Companion is equally defined by its hopeful air of reconciliation and renewal, embodied by Maya Rudolph’s pregnant assistant and epitomized, ultimately, by Yolanda’s oft-stated belief that “one door closes, another opens.”