A Prairie Home Companion (PG-13 for bits of risqué humor) combines a screenplay by Garrison Keillor (whose three-decade-long radio show gives its name to the title) and 81-year-old director Robert Altman, who three decades ago made probably his best movie, Nashville.
The Prairie Home premise is that a weekly radio show after 30 years in Minnesota is having its last performance, with a soulless Texas evangelical (of course!) planning to tear down the building that is radio paradise and put up a parking lot. But that PBS-style gibe is the only political note in a gentle elegy that should have broad appeal to gray-haired folks who avoid typical teen-oriented theater fare.
This film has lots of parallels to Nashville: a group of eccentric musicians putting on a show, a mysterious stranger wandering through the action, sad characters pasting on happy performance faces, a clueless know-it-all providing comic relief, a young singer who seems out of it seizing her moment at the end, and a fondness for Americana (including good, gospel-rooted music).
But the differences are significant. Nashville was an ambitious middle-ager's movie, forward-looking and cynical, but Prairie Home is an elderly man's gentle backward glance. Mr. Altman at this point seems not a bitter critic of both Hollywood and conservatives but an old friend, sitting on the park bench and making a film that may serve as a bookend to his career.
One of Prairie Home's oddball characters is a beautiful angel of death who roams the final broadcast offering sweet thoughts and taking away those for whom she has come. Maybe octogenarian Altman, as one line from this movie goes, has become thankful for his achievements rather than bitter about his disappointments. And that's a fine and clear message from a director who pioneered overlapping dialogue but also sometimes fell into overwhelming despair.