A person going to see A Prairie Home Companion and not knowing who had directed it, might quickly suspect it was Robert Altman, or at least a clever imitator. The overlapping, impromptu-feeling dialogue is all there, as is the realistic, almost documentary style of the scenes. It is a return to more familiar stuff after his venture into more standard territory with Gosford Park.
The plot, to the extent that there is one, revolves around the popular NPR radio program A Prairie Home Companion, hosted by Garrison Keillor. Keillor plays himself in the movie. Several other actual crew members of the show are mixed in with more familiar actors to form a somewhat fictitious radio performance troupe, which is giving its last performance. The real Prairie Home Companion is doing just fine, but the fictitious one of the Altman movie is being cancelled by a large evil corporation (is there any other kind in Hollywood?) The movie takes place almost entirely during the last performance as seen by the various contributors to the show.
It does have a plot, which is at times is evident, but at other times, it is more of an intimate look into a last performance and how different members of the show react and interact without any real rise or fall in action. If the concept sounds strange so far, that’s not the half of it. The somewhat real, somewhat fictitious troupe playing a pretend final show, though odd, cannot hold a candle to the element that actress Virginia Madsen brings. It would be too revealing to say exactly what, so I’ll just limit myself to saying that her character represents an entirely different genre, which, when mixed with the aforementioned elements, produces an unsettling, even jarring sensation that I could not immediately decide if I liked or not. In certain ways, it must be the strangest film I have ever seen.
The craftsmanship is quite good; nothing less than what you would expect from an Altman film. As usual, Altman probes with his camera while the actors explore the possibilities of a scene. When Altman feels he has enough, he wades through the miles of film and picks out the pieces he wants and, a bit of editing later, the scenes come together.
It is a style that has worked for him before and it generally works here. The show itself serves as the central pillar, supporting the movie. The various personal scenes, some mildly comical and amusing, others deeply personal and touching, all depend on that pillar of support. It does, however, suffer from a few dead ends. Certain scenes suggest a topic or motif which go unexplored. Certain events seem to be building toward something but ultimately lead to nothing.