True Altman fans are in for a real treat come June: A Prairie Home Companion is a nice thick slice of prime Altman, served up slightly, pleasantly undercooked. Tonal incongruities, roving, restless camerawork, overlapping dialogue, churlish mix of high and low comedy—its most identifiable counterpart in the Altman oeuvre would be the severely underappreciated A Wedding. If you’re hoping for a Short Cuts-esque revelation in light of its Berlin FF huzzahs it would best try to keep expectations at a minimum and just happily let the cacophony and lovely, Ed Lachmann-lensed images wash over you.
In fact, the camerwork is so exquisitely crafted here, that it’s hard not to overstate the film’s charms. Glowing with a candy-cane warmth, every interior is suffused with a delicate nostalgia: appropriate for a film about loss and wistfulness. It takes place on the night of the fictional last peformance of Garrison Keiller’s titular folk music radio program as it’s being shut down by corporate Texas interests, and as in the director’s classic way, each member of the ensemble (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Kevin Kline, Keillor himself) blends into the next; no true protagonist emerges…there’s just the sense of the end of an era, with radio itself standing in for a bygone time and sensibility. Trickiest, and as it turns out, loveliest of all, Virginia Madsen wades through the expertly designed and modulated tableaux as a literal angel of death; it’s a performance that easily could have been too overdetermined, but Madsen’s wonderful calming presence (already terrifically exploited in that corny-but-gratifying life-is-like-a-pinot-grape monologue in Sideways) lays over the film like downy flake.
And ultimately, A Prairie Home Companion, musical-comedy though it may be, is a film about death. Altman’s miracle is that he manages to keep it light as a feather, and then when exiting the theater, the full weight of its melancholy hits you. Its array of seemingly contradictory narrative markers (noir, radio, folk) all serve to reinforce the idea of time passing and the ending of cultural moments. It’s a lullaby for a lost culture.