After 32 years on the air, Garrison Keillor's beloved radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, is coming to an end. Its Minnesota home station, WLT, has been sold to a Texas conglomerate and, hungry for fatter profits, the ten-gallon guys are pulling Prairie's plug once and for all.
Relax, NPR-ophiles. Keillor isn't really being forced to hang up his mic. That's just the premise for the big-screen adaptation, a star-studded backstage dramedy that, in typical, free-flowing Robert Altman form, chronicles the final hours of the last Prairie broadcast. In between musical numbers, there are illicit affairs, strange apparitions, and a death. ''It doesn't follow the normal conventions of what a movie is,'' says Altman, who, at 81, admits the theme of mortality is on his mind. As for Keillor's doomsday premise for the radio show, the director adds, ''To make a film about your own demise is, uh...weird, to say the least.'' (Keillor, who plays himself, swears it's not wishful thinking.)
Shot almost entirely in St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater, where Keillor and Co. have performed the real show live since 1978, the film features such familiar Prairie characters as the lassoin' cowboy duo Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) and the inept private eye Guy Noir, here transformed into the Fitzgerald's equally inept security guard (Kevin Kline). Tommy Lee Jones pops up as the Texan CEO with dollar signs in his eyes, and Meryl Streep, singing on screen for the first time since 1990's Postcards From the Edge, forms a sister-songbird act with Lily Tomlin. ''I felt so honored to be on that set,'' gushes Lindsay Lohan, making her indie debut as Streep's amateur-poet daughter. ''We did a lot of improv and I'm not used to that. Just watching the cast was a great learning experience.'' The young actress kept up with the big kids just fine, according to Streep. ''She's so gifted it's shocking,'' says the Oscar winner. ''She sings this [one] number she blows the doors off the place!''