A Prairie Home Companion is not a masterpiece in the grand, historical sense, but on its own terms, it's pretty much a perfect film. Scripted by Garrison Keillor, directed by the legendary Robert Altman, and starring a dream cast that manages to include everyone from the most nominated actress in Oscar history to the most gossiped about young starlet of today, the film's consummate professionalism oozes off the screen. This – to see professional entertainers, not breaking a sweat whilst entertaining – should not be surprising, but the simple, classical ease of the thing feels like a revelation.
The bulk of the action takes place over the course of a single night. A local radio station has been bought by a greasy Texas oilman, and their homegrown, long-running, old-timey radio variety show is embarking on its last broadcast before the homebase is demolished. Keillor essentially plays himself, the host of the show and the somewhat foggy father figure to a cast of eccentrics. Kevin Kline plays an incarnation of Guy Noir (a character played on the radio by Keillor), a down-on-his-luck detective "working security" for the theater (read: hanging out backstage smoking hand-rolled cigarettes). Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly pop up as singing cowboys with a taste for cringe-worthy double entendre. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play the remains of a life-long sister act (the story of what happened to the other sisters gives the gals a chance to rock out on the finishing-each-other's-sentences thing they demoed at the Oscars); the former has brought her sullen teenage daughter (Lindsay Lohan) to watch the last show (read: hang out backstage scrawling poetry about suicide). The film paints over the structure of the actual radio show (many of its regulars appear on stage behind the Hollywood types) with the small, unspoken joke that if any of the up-front regulars had any real talent, they'd probably be somewhere else. It's not meant to be condescending, though – it's actually endearing, and enables us to understand why the show means so much to them.
Altman's greatest gift to filmmaking was his destruction of the fourth wall – actors in Altman films don't act for the camera, they simply become their characters, and Altman's camera swoops in and out, as if there are real lives on screen that are going on even when we're not around to bear witness. Keillor's script makes the most of Altman's signature style, figuring the radio show as a slightly more performative slice of its participants' lives. In some kind of irony that I don't even know how to parse right now, the film knows it's hokey and old-fashioned, and it plays on that fact throughout, to the point where it's actually practicing some kind of post-modernism. That really shouldn't be surprising – after all, Altman is the guy who wrote himself into the canon through obstinate narrative deconstruction. But Keillor has given him a script that constantly surprises in its self-referentiality. In its neatest trick of all, the script circumvents any criticism of its lack of timeliness by very literally casting the proceedings under a shadow of death.
But on to the real question of the hour: how does Miss Lohan stack up against some of the world's greatest actors, under the tutelage of America's best living director? She's certainly not bad, but then, it's an Altman film, so she's cast perfectly. Her much-maligned bleached-blonde skinniness actually works well here; it gives the young Lola a fragility that sits nicely with her Goth bravado, and works especially well in her solo musical number. As for the duet she performs with the gospel powerhouse...well, let's just say that Lohan benefits greatly from Keillor's emphasis on the amateurism of the performers.