Imagine a combination of Garrison Keillor’s radio show A Prairie Home Companion and Robert Altman’s unique style of directing.  In its execution, this film blends the two distinct styles to create a product that lies somewhere between absurd and profound.

The story chronicles the variety show’s last live radio broadcast before being shut down by new ownership.  Absent-minded private eye, Guy Noir (also security guard and part-time narrator), spends the evening chasing down the beautiful angel of death, who has come to collect one of the show’s stars.  Otherwise, it is business as usual at the Fitzgerald Theater, creating good, nearly wholesome entertainment.

Keillor himself wrote the story and the script, and he also stars as himself in the film.  Consequently, PHC the movie contains classic elements of the show, including quirky characters and an unapologetic presentation of fiction as reality.  The best examples of the latter are repeated advertisements for products that don’t actually exist, improvised on-stage sound effects and Keillor’s exaggerated tall tales.

Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville, Gosford Park) is the master of the ensemble cast, making him the logical choice to direct this film.  His movies typically exhibit a worldview which I would call cautiously pessimistic.  For example, PHC addresses the difficult topics of death and human indifference, but Altman simultaneously entertains us with lighthearted, nostalgic music and ridiculous jokes.  Ultimately, this film is either a confusing mess or a brilliant juxtaposition of joy and suffering.

The only troubling content in PHC involves the frequent inappropriate jokes.  When the singing cowboys take the stage, beware.  Slightly more disturbing is the feeling of despair that permeates much of the film.  The presence of the angel of death begs the question: what are these characters living for?  Whether they figure it out or not, the question makes this film about more than just an entertaining show.

*Special thanks to Joe Hercik for his contribution to this review