You don’t get much more explicitly late–period in a director’s career than a movie about a long–running show that’s being “cancelled.” I confess to some qualms going into Robert Altman’s latest, being a collaboration with another creative organizer/talent, from another medium, no less, which seemed to promise folly. That the show was the beloved A Prairie Home Companion also put me on guard, for I’ve always felt guilty for respecting but not loving Garrison Keillor’s heartland family circus.
Comfort comes with the realization that no one besides Altman would even consider such a movie, which is, in its way, more exotic than the longest art–house long–take or abject sex scene. Keillor and his star–stand–in cast gather together for a final episode that the mellifluous–toned host genially refuses to acknowledge as such, the camera hovering on variety shows on the soundstage and off backstage, propelled not by dramas (a sudden death, a mysterious angel figure, on–air schedule jitters) so much as alongside them. Keillor and Altman’s collaboration, far from folly, shows two talented improvisers — a match of veterans of orchestrating, Keillor’s unspooling radio shows an analogue to Altman’s floating–fray ensembles.
If I’ve taken a while to even name cast members, it’s because Prairie Home’s companionship comes not from sisters Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin’s graceful banter, or Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly’s salty old jokes (and certainly not Kevin Kline as Guy Noir), nor even Keillor’s wry, stoic stewardship. Prairie Home lives in its many musical numbers — the movie, and life, as one long song you want to rush into and surge through, even knowing that you’re always getting closer to the end.