Fans who cherish Robert Altman's largely '70s-derived reputation as a cynical, jaded crank might want to skip A Prairie Home Companion altogether. Detractors convinced that Altman has gone soft in his old age, meanwhile, will find ample evidence to support their case in a handful of unashamedly sentimental moments and an all-around spirit of big-hearted upper-Midwestern bonhomie. Cutesy conceits like a golden-haired angel of death (Virginia Madsen) who hovers over the action, and a hard-boiled yet cuddly, anachronistic refugee from a '40s detective novel (Kevin Kline) could easily have come across as precious in the hands of another filmmaker. But they prove surprisingly palatable here, thanks to deft underplaying on Kline and Madsen's part, plus Altman's light, affectionate touch.
A feature-film adaptation of Garrison Keillor's beloved public-radio staple, the film centers on one long, eventful night in the life of an ingratiatingly old-fashioned radio show scheduled for its last broadcast, a victim of changing times and corporate short-sightedness. The show's finale unites a colorful assortment of singers and craftsmen, including the two surviving members of an ill-fated family act (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep), a cowboy duo (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) prone to bad jokes and winking double entendres, Lindsay Lohan's death-obsessed chanteuse/poet, and Keillor, who plays himself, a role for which he's uniquely suited.
A Prairie Home Companion echoes Altman's recent, overlooked The Company in its affectionate portrayal of the quirks, eccentricities, and loose camaraderie of a community of artists united in a common goal. He works in a warm, relaxed, unhurried groove that can't help but infect his exceedingly game players. Harrelson, Reilly, Tomlin, and Streep have such deliciously lived-in chemistry that it's hard to believe they haven't been playing salacious crooning cowboys or singing sisters together all their lives. And even if Altman has in fact been making a variation of this movie his entire career, as he suggested in his gracious lifetime-Oscar acceptance speech, it's still got a whole lot of charm and life left in it. Altman and Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion is fittingly both a celebration and a winning example of the joys of collaboration.