A gentle piffle, "A Prairie Home Companion" is the Summer's most lovely find - a movie that is easy on the ears and seemingly made of sheary, impossible gossamer that would spindle or crush under a more heavy-handed production.
The impressive cast seems to be having a whole lot of fun - Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan, LQ Jones et al all have perfunctory if labored singing voices, but it is scripter Garrison Keillor that is the thread that stitches this one together so well. The result is an infectious, genial collection of characters and occasions whose easy charms stay with the viewer days after the film finally unspools its last credit.
Although I have never heard a PHC performance before, the film plays as a tribute to the old days of radio shows and more over, a loving though chilly valentine to the radio days of old. Anyone old enough though not near an NPR station might not know the show but most certainly can hum the tune.
Keillor, he with an alien-like E.T. observation of the goings-on at the final performance of his 30+ year-old live radio show, has a wonderful announcer voice and an above average singing voice that anchors the honest, down home corn-pone credibility of the film. He is a cypher through the picture - a guy you could listen to for hours chat about his exploits, introduce faux commercials and sing a song about nothing in particular. GK has such an ethereal presence that you look at him with such amazement because a "regular" joe like he earns such a shorthand with his audience and can stand toe to toe with aplomb next to Oscar winners like Kline and Streep. It's a great, understated performance.
The movie, directed by the legendary Robert Altman, has such a light touch that it's hard to not fall easily into it's flow. It's dreamy, slight and surreal, yet sets up its universe that is vaguely of today - but what world still has an actual radio show broadcast across the nation so detailed and entertaining as this? Altman and Keillor do the amazing - they deny the audience of any cheap emotion and pathos or short cuts to pay off the scenario. As much as this movie is about the wistful honor and simple entertainment of such a radio programs that used to rule the airwaves in the 1930s through the 1950s, both writer and director refuse to pander to suspected emotional payoffs or happy endings that lesser film creators might. This is a cold, simple and honest movie about the last kick at the can of a venerable institution, and as they choreograph it: so what? Every show, as Keillor says in the film, is the last show. Big deal.
Despite it's frigid demeanor, "A Prairie Home Companion" is filled with warm, quiet moments that offers each cast member has a shining, sterling moment of performance - though none takes centre stage and overpowers or overacts. If anyone goes swinging for the balconies, its Altman regular Tomlin, who creates such a wonderful counterbalance to Streep's simple, honest Minnesotan singing sister partner that she stands as the picture's meta heart - a desperate, hardened yet proud woman backed into a career corner who doesn't know what to do after her regular job is prematurely retired by big radio business. Tomlin deserves an Oscar.
For a film that is steeped in a sentimentality that no longer exists, Altman keeps his sharpened artist eye wandering the set for the most interesting player in the room instead of mourning the sad gone before. There's no release in the movie, no eulogy for the past. "A Prairie Home Companion" is a straight-forward document of what was, not what could have been or what will be.
The director's brilliance is that his lens cares about what technical and bits of business that come to affect in the making of the final show which really tell the story - of a group of people who spend their Saturday nights singing songs, telling stories and transmitting their folksy well-wishes to an imaginary audience listening in on their bedside table radio. In the movie, Altman and Keillor let their staged audience seated in the cavernous Fitzgerald Theater in Minneapolis or those sitting in shoebox movie theater in Anywhere, USA fill in the relevance.
One of the best movies of the year.