I thought A Prairie Home Companion was a good movie, better than the average Hollywood movie, but not a great movie, and gave it four stars.
This will draw the wrath of the self-appointed police of movie criticism who can bear no deviance from the New York literati orthodoxy. Robert Altman is a great director, goes the literati's auteur analysis. Great directors make great movies (or "films" as the literati like to say.) Robert Altman made A Prairie Home Companion. Ergo, A Prairie Home Companion is a great movie. On the converse side, Ron Howard played Opie on the television series, Happy Days. Happy Days was a popular and therefore, insubstantial, series (as would be any television series with the word "Happy" in it.) Ergo, Ron Howard is a bad movie director. Ergo, any movie made by Ron Howard, such as A Beautiful Mind, must be a bad movie.
These "movie police" enforce the ordinances and statutes of The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and The Village Voice. Frank Rich is their chief. When Rich makes a pronouncement, his minions bow three times and go forth to do likewise.
I hold no brief against Robert Altman. I loved Nashville and Short Cuts. I like to listen to Garrison Keillor and his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, if I remember and am not otherwise engaged. The highpoints of the radio show are Keillor's monologue, a long, rambling account of happenings in the fictional "Lake Wobegon" and the goofy radio dramas with characters; Guy Noir, Lefty and Dusty, the cowboys. Keillor is a genius at what he does; no other radio program comes close to duplicating his schtick.
The problem with Keillor is when he goes outside the entertainment genre in which he excels. I have read several of his novels and he is not a great novelist. Nor is he a great movie writer. The plot of the movie, A Prairie Home Companion is so thin as to be virtually non-existent. The movie is supposedly the last broadcast of the radio show, brought to an end because a rapacious Texan has bought the Fitzgerald Theater, home of the show when it is in St. Paul, and plans to tear it down. But that makes no sense because the show is frequently on the road; there is nothing unique about the Fitzgerald that would put an end to the show if it couldn't have the theater as its home base.
Then there is the problem of Guy Noir, a fictional detective played by Keillor on the radio program, who suddenly is a real person, the head of security for the show, played by Kevin Kline, in the movie. A mysterious woman dressed in white glides around the stage and dressing rooms in the movie, but it is never clear exactly what she is doing. The consensus seems to be that she represents death, as a character dies in her presence, but then she returns, and no one knows for what or whom.
Keillor plays himself, but doesn't do the famous monologue, the strongest part of the radio show. Although several of the fake commercials are shown in the movie, there are no dramas; Lefty and Dusty becoming strictly singers, who don't sing all that well. Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep appear as an aging pair of singing sisters, and they are always a delight to watch. They do their own singing in the movie and do an amazingly good job. Then there is a teenager who writes suicidal poetry played by Lindsay Lohan, apparently a television star, but whom I have never seen nor heard of. The movie criticism police applaud her performance, apparently contrasting the character she plays in this movie with whatever she plays in other movies, but, like the direction, I think it should stand on its own. If one has to evaluate a performance by comparing it with other things that director or actor has done, then it doesn't seem like much of a noteworthy performance to me.
The major problem with the movie is that by its very nature it destroys the very thing that makes the radio show great, i.e. the fact that what is going on is NOT seen; it happens largely in your imagination. Radio sound effects lose their effect when you can see that the sound of horses galloping is not coming from actual horses galloping but a guy banging together some blocks of wood.
So, with all my criticisms, why am I giving this movie four stars instead of three? Well, it is not a typical Hollywood movie. There are no gun battles, car chases or sex scenes. It is a sleepy film about a sleepy radio show. It gives a nice, although probably fictional, view of the behind-the-scenes of a radio show that I like -- somewhat. On the other hand, if you've ever seen one of the televised broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion on public television, then you're probably been entertained as much as you would be by seeing this movie.