Robert Altman was a filmmaker who never seemed to feel the need to keep "in fashion" the way other directors have. Beginning with his real breakout film, "MASH", he developed a very personal approach to filmmaking with emphasis on character and dialog that was perfectly suited to certain films ("Nashville", perhaps his supreme masterpiece), but other times seemed wrong for the material ("Popeye").
Altman's final film is a wonderfully dreamy film that depicts a highly theatrical world; in this case, the backstage of the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Stylistically, the film belongs to Altman, although it's cheery yet dry humor is pure Garrison Keillor. Keillor holds court with his performers, acting as a kind of master of ceremonies for a variety of acts, mostly country-western types (recalling "Nashville"). The performers are all standouts: Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a sister country-western act, Lindsay Lohan as their daughter, Kevin Kline in a wonderfully comical turn as detective Guy Noir, L.Q. Jones as Chuck Akers, an aging country music singer, and perhaps the biggest standouts, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as a comic cowboy duo, whose "Bad Jokes" number provides the best laughs in the film.
Most interesting is Garrison Keillor playing himself, an inveterate weaver of tall-tales and interesting characters, and facing his responsibilities as host with a wonderfully deadpan sense of humor and calm. Keillor is a living legend, and this film (from his own script) stands as a real testament to his unique brand of humor that stems from a long tradition going back to Twain.
Altman died just shortly after completing the film. Like Stanley Kubrick, who died just weeks after completing his final film, "A Prairie Home Companion" is also a kind of tribute to the show business world in which Altman spent his career working. In one scene in which the new owner (Tommy Lee Jones) of the show's theater arrives to survey his new property, he comments that the whole thing seems like something out of the past, a point also made in the opening narration by Kline's Guy Noir. There is also a wonderfully supernatural element to the film that seems particularly resonant given Altman's passing shortly after the film was released.
"A Prairie Home Companion" is a film both of an earlier time, and ahead of its time. It stands as one of Altman's finest and most personal works, and a wonderful record of the uniquely American humor of Garrison Keillor.