When Robert Altman left this world in 2006 he left behind a body of film and television work that was ambitious, trend setting, brilliant, and awful all at the same time. You can't take risks the way Altman did and not have the occasional failure – it just goes with the territory when you make movies without a safety net.
For an Altman movie to succeed it needs to walk the fine line between being loose and seemingly chaotic without ever truly descending into chaos. To negotiate that tightrope requires a cast willing to work as an ensemble, a stellar script, and just the right touch from the director. If any of those three aren't present, or are weakened, then the movie spirals out of control.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that his finest movie in the twilight of his career was Gosford Park, where he worked primarily with an English cast who came primarily from a stage background. A good deal of his movies are shot "live", where a whole scene is shot straight through as if it were being performed on stage. Later he might go back and do some "pick-up" shots for any required close-ups or reverse angles on a conversation, but the initial take for a scene would be a performance requiring the actors to be on stage for however long they were shooting.
That's far different from the usual method of shooting two lines at a time and then stringing them together in the editing room. In an Altman film actors genuinely have to give performances because they probably won't be saved in the editing booth.
Unfortunately the last film that Robert Altman made, A Prairie Home Companion, falls short on nearly all those fronts. Instead of his usual satiric or insightful self, this script bordered on the mawkish and sentimental with nothing of substance for the audience to hold on to.
In brief the movie is about the last night of a live radio show broadcast. We show up before the curtain rises and the on air light goes on to find out that the radio station has been bought out and tonight the new owner is coming to axe the show. It's the type of show where the same acts have been appearing over and over again down through the years and the host is the friendly guy next door who always has a story to tell.
They sing the ads live on air from scripts, have a sound effects man, and read mail from their viewers live on air. It's the way radio was done in the good old days, as we seem to be continually being reminded by someone or other.
The problems start with the script by Garrison Keillor. He specializes in doing just this type of show in the United States either live or on the radio so he can give a very clear picture of what happens on stage, but it's offstage that is important to a movie like this and that is where the trouble lies with this script.
First of all it can't decide whether it wants to be a satirical look at the people involved in the proceedings like Altman's brilliant Nashville or give us a warm-hearted, sentimental view of them. It seems to be trying to do both at once and you can't do that without a touch of genius that this script lacks.
We're given plenty of reasons to think of a good many of the characters as ridiculous. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are the only two surviving members of a group of four sisters, The Johnson Sisters, who started singing together to make their mama's chores less tedious. It's details like that which could have made this a really funny and intelligent attack on saccharine sentiment that passes for emotional truth in America.
But instead of exposing the hollow core inside such banal statements like, "Mama said we were her ray of sunshine when we sang to her as she scrubbed the floor on her hands and knees", we are left unsure of the actors' and director's intent. It's like they don't want to commit to satire because they are afraid of insulting people.
The end result, though, is something that is even more insulting than if they had gone with satire. It makes all involved with the show look foolish and silly. We end up not giving a damn whether or not the show gets canceled or what will happen to any of the people involved.
I think the most depressing thing about this movie is that in spite of the quality of the cast, none of the performances are particularly inspired. Even such industry veterans like Kevin Kline and Tommy Lee Jones are mailing in their performances so that at best they appear to be simply going through the motions of acting.
Unfortunately a cast that doesn't live up to expectations and a movie that can't decide what it wants to do are all symptoms of a director losing control of a project. Too many of the actors look on their scenes as an opportunity to chew the scenery and grab attention for themselves as much as possible for the type of ensemble performances Altman's other movies were famous for. Somehow or other the whole film looks to have slipped out of the control of the director's hands.
A Prairie Home Companion is one of Robert Altman's weakest films. It was also the last film he ever directed. I hope that people will do him the kindness not to judge his career based on this poor effort.