When I first heard Robert Altman was making a movie of the long-running public radio show A Prarie Home Companion, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, Altman is, without doubt, one of the towering figures of world cinema, but you never know what he'll come up with. Sometimes you'll get a masterpiece (The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Short Cuts...this list could go on), sometimes you'll get a mess (O.C. and Stiggs, Fool For Love...this list could go for awhile, too). However, his most recent film, The Company, was, I thought, one of his best and least appreciated, so I had no doubt that Altman, at 81, is still capable of anything.
But A Prarie Home Companion, the radio show, isn't exactly my cup of tea. An excessively cozy, somewhat self-satisfied mix of cornball comedy and old-timey music, its creator, Garrison Keillor, is Altman's exact opposite: you always know what you're going to get with him. He's been doing the exact same thing for decades now.
Keillor scripted A Prarie Home Companion, the movie, and unfortunately couldn't jetison all of his cutesy tendencies (one fake ad for Powermilk Biscuits would have been quite enough, thank you), but the sensibility here is pure Altman. Focusing on the final broadcast of a long-running radio variety show, and how what happens back stage often carries over on-air, it is all about loss--loss of livelihoods, loss of a way of life, loss of life itself. We can only hope this is not Altman's final film, but it seems as though he was aware of the possibility; it has an ache to it, a melancholy that comes close, but never tips into, sentimentality.
There are a lot of terrific performers here--Woody Harrelson, John C. Riley, Maya Rudolph, Kevin Kline and one of my all-time favorites, L.Q. Jones. But the tender heart of the movie is the relationship between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, playing the only surviving members of a family singing act. As they spin anecdotes about their lives and hard times to Streep's daughter (nicely played by Lindsay Lohan), they begin to realize that this is it, this is all that's left of their lives. They sing the spiritual Softly And Tenderly and embrace, secure that if this is all they have, it's enough.
It's an emotionally devastating scene, but Altman wisely doesn't linger over it too long. Sorrow is part of life, yes, but there's also music and laughter and friendship, and all get their due over the course of this wonderful movie.