Weird mishmash of a movie, based on Garrison Keillor's long-running cult radio show of the same name. Costarring (as himself) and written by Keillor, much of the film is a sort of valentine from this man to his own creation. How comfortable you are about that will surely depend on how big a fan you are of his show, an intentionally old-timey affair combining new takes on classic American folk music, corny jokes, and good old fashioned storytelling. (As for me, I don't go out of my way to listen to it, but if I catch it on the air I'll enjoy it.)
As on the radio show, the best parts of A Prairie Home Companion are the musical numbers, most of them featuring Keillor, his regular musicians, and Meryl Streep, who has a wonderful singing voice. There is also a very funny song called "Bad Jokes", featuring Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a singing cowboy duo with a risque sense of humor. If this were solely a concert film, it would be a vast improvement over what we've got, for Keillor hangs these musical numbers upon a saggy clothesline of a story: the theater where A Prairie Home Companion is recorded is (fictionally) due to be torn down, it's the final night of the show, and death permeates the air, both literally and figuratively.
This is where the film doesn't work. I'm sure there are many levels here - Keillor may be envisioning the day when his real-live radio show will have its final performance (most likely due to his own death or retirement). 81-year-old director Altman is also surely aware of his own waning years. The film could even be seen as an elegy for the two dying art forms practiced by these two unique artists - Keillor, with his antique-feeling radio program, and Altman, who makes ensemble films like no other. But it's ruined by a clunky subplot where the angel of death, personified by Virginia Madsen, comes to the theater not only to take the life of one of the show's performers but also to usher out the actual show. It's a stupid idea, pretentiously played out, and Madsen seems stiff and confused in the part.
The plot bogs down what's already a mixed bag of a movie: Kevin Kline, as a '40s-style detective named Guy Noir, utters some terrific Keillor monologues at the beginning of the film, but soon starts sleepwalking through a series of modest pratfall gags that are neither clever nor funny. And all the backstage scenes are pointless. Still, it's worth skipping forward to the terrific musical numbers. Meryl Streep is especially appealing here. I must say, she's really grown on me in recent years. I never thought much of her in the '80s when she was America's Most Serious Actress. Now that she's mellowed into middle age, her face has become more buoyant, her acting warmer and funnier. Without question, she is the best thing about A Prairie Home Companion, which except for some funny dirty jokes by Harrelson and Reilly is otherwise a miss.