In the best of Robert Altman's ensemble pictures, his sprawling casts fall into a sort of miraculous rhythm. No matter how divergent their storylines might be, there's never a sense that actors aren't on the same page. In MASH, for example, not only are Donald Sutherland's Hawkeye and Elliot Gould's Trapper John completely in sync, but they also share a clear understanding with Sally Kellerman (Hot Lips) and Robert Duvall (Frank Burns). And in The Player, no matter how reptilian and icy Tim Robbins' Griffin Mill gets, he never fails to share convincing connections with every other major actor in the film -- despite its rangy story, never once does the movie feel like anything less than a coherent whole. By the same token, however, when things go wrong for Altman they go very, very wrong. Despite its world-class cast, Prêt-à-Porter is a sprawling mess, full of characters and performances that have nothing to do with one another, and a story that exists simply to give them all an excuse to be in the same movie.
While Altman's latest feature, A Prairie Home Companion, is by no means the aggressive disaster Prêt-à-Porter was, there nevertheless is something off about. Stocked with an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, and Tommy Lee Jones, the movie never congeals into a coherent whole, despite a handful of heart-felt performances. Set backstage at an old-time-style radio show called A Prairie Home Companion (also the name of screenwriter-star Garrison Keillor's long-running show on NPR), the movie takes place during the show's final performance: The Fitzgerald Theater in which it is based has been bought out, and the new owners have no interest in hosting a radio show. As Altman is wont to do, he jumps back and forth among stories that include a pregnant stage manager (Maya Rudolph), lovers planning a tryst (L.Q. Jones and Marylouise Burke), an angel (Virginia Madsen) in search of a soul, singing sisters reminiscing about their careers (Streep and Tomlin), and a star uncomfortable with saying goodbye (Keillor).