Robert Altman is the voice of America's edge, a director who often pretends sympathy with subjects, but who is essentially a misanthrope, a man who takes a not-so-secret pleasure in seeing people's dreams and schemes crushed to earth.
A Prairie Home Companion is an unhappy blend of their essentially antithetical sensibilities, in which a radio show, rather like, but not quite like, the one Keillor has been presiding over since 1974, is giving its last broadcast, having been decreed irrelevant by the new owners of the radio station that has long carried it. This Companion is purely local, not nationally syndicated as Keillor's real show is, and it is basically a songfest. Keillor does not do his monologue about the latest doings in Lake Wobegon. Nor are there the dramatized comic snippets about private eye Guy Noir (played here by Kevin Kline) or the lonesome cowboys, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) that have been a long-standing feature of the show. These figures are present, but worked into a feckless and meandering story, which features "A Dangerous Lady" (Virginia Madsen) in a white trenchcoat, who is actually the Angel of Death, come to claim "The Axeman" (Tommy Lee Jones), who is present to administer the coup de grace to the program. There are a number of subplots in the film, in the best of which Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play singing sisters, once promising, now more than a little forlorn.
Streep, in particular, is a marvel a cheerfully pious woman refusing to admit disappointment and doing her best to divert her adolescent daughter (an excellent Lindsay Lohan) from her addiction to writing suicidal poetry. It seems to me that she, alone of the cast, has the true Keillorian spirit, which is simply to use a kind of perpetual perkiness to elbow aside the surrounding dread (or at least darkness). I'm guessing, of course, but I suspect that's a spirit that she found in herself, that it's not something Altman coaxed out of her. There's no evidence, anywhere else in the film, that he is doing much more than making set-ups, mainly tracking shots, which give the film a restless, unsettled air that annoys the eye far more frequently than it pleases it. Mostly, the actors are left to their own devices and since none of them actually has a character to play there are no back stories here and no discernable motivations they are left stranded and wandering. Kline is particularly bereft in this regard. He's no longer detecting; he's the show's chief of security and he can't find anything useful to do in the narrative, except make little stabs at improvised humor that are never funny and are often embarrassing.
In a few of his better films (and they are not many in comparison to those he has messed up) Altman has used his peculiar style mumbled dialogue often overlapped, a restless camera zooming, panning, tracking to obscure the fact that they have very little to say. The lives he recounts are hopelessly muddled and ruled by chance and coincidence, with their outcomes generally a nasty surprise both to the players and to us in the audience. The way he encourages (or at least permits) his actors to improvise makes him a beloved figure to them, and permits his more impressionable viewers to feel they are in the presence of profundity the chaos of the universe sourly presented by a director who is both superior to and malignant about the stupes he's asking us to study.
This, of course, is not Keillor's way. His radio show is generally easy listening, but it exists for the moment when he intones, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon" and launches into one of his tallish stories, marked by a looping inventiveness and softly colored by a kind of deadpan compassion. I would not for a moment imply that he achieves in them a tragic sense of life, but they are certainly implicitly sympathetic to people whose reach exceeds their emotional grasp and often enough hypnotic in their telling. I'm not saying that a movie can reasonably be expected to come to a halt while Keillor tells one of his stories. But this weightless film needs to have found some equivalent to them , and there were times in A Prairie Home Companion when I wanted the old Altman to assert himself, to let some mumbling and zooming happen, if only to obscure the paucity (and desperation) of Keillor's thin and casual plotting, to make poignantly manifest some of the sadness and confusion of people trying to do a live radio show while knowing that it is to be the last in a series that has been, for years, the ruling habit of their lives.
But Altman just shoots it, without directorial comment or commitment. He's no more than a technician, fearful, it seems, of intruding too heavily on Keillor's territory. But that territory is, in this case, essentially undefended by its founder-proprietor. It is waiting for someone, something, to grant its people felt and wayward lives. If A Prairie Home Companion functions at all it is as a performance film some of the songs, though not particularly well shot, are at least lively. But that's not enough. Streep's work aside, you can pretty much get all that's worth having out of the film by skipping it entirely and buying the soundtrack album.