I’m in a huge feud with Lindsay Lohan now… She knows what she did.
— Al Gore, on being a “movie star,” Tonight Show (8 June 2006)
You might call A Prairie Home Companion an unlikely Lindsay Lohan movie. You could also call it the best work she’s done, the best work she’s likely to do, or the best chance she’s had to do good work. Here’s Lindsay — notorious bad driver, paparazzi victim, and late-night partier — transformed into another possibility, on a screen with Meryl Streep playing her mom.
That’s not to say that Lohan’s previous work is unworthy: Mean Girls is generally fabulous and, in Freaky Friday, she matches Jamie Lee Curtis step for comedic step. And yes, she’s altogether perfect in The Parent Trap, especially if you’re nine years old. But still, in A Prairie Home Companion, Lohan is unexpectedly nuanced, canny, and endearing.
Who would have thought? Lohan’s Lola spends most of her time behind the scenes at her mom Yolanda’s radio show, fashioned after the show that writer and costar Garrison Keillor has been performing for 32 years. Lola’s not precisely thrilled with being stuck with mom and mom’s sister/singing partner, Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), and she shows it by rolling her eyes, sighing frequently, and burying herself in her notebook, where she writes poems about suicide (“Death is easy, like jumping into the big blue air and waving goodbye to god… You are toast”). She wears glasses, her hair hangs down, and her shirt is baggy, signs of a typical teeny angst. Surrounded by fast-aging adults, Lola is at once alienated and immersed, wanting both to be heard and to disappear. She’s a kid, and she has a lot on her mind.
As if to mirror her discomfort, the movie takes place, as radio show host G.K. (Keillor) tells his audience, on “a quiet night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets,” that is, St. Paul, Minnesota. The mood at the show is grim, as the crew has just learned that WLT, the station that carries the movie’s radio show, has been sold to a conglomerate and the show will be shut down (this betokens a terrible future, as the Makeup Lady [Sue Scott] observes, where “There won’t be anything left on radio except computer music and people yelling at each other”). For their last night, the regulars perform, quarrel, and make up, while the security guard, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), keeps watch. In between rolling his own cigarettes and manning the desk at the backstage door, Guy spots an intruder, a Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen) who walks right in, wearing a stunning white raincoat and a whiff of femme fatale.
This seeming angel of death wanders through the Fitzgerald Theater, unnerving Guy and reminding you that death is ever imminent, for radio shows, movie characters, and movie directors, such as the recently nearly dead Robert Altman. For the moment, some habits appear quite alive: the Old Trailhands Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Reilly) would realize their out-of-dateness. But instead, they act out an antiquated masculinity (trading yucks about “riding my pony all night”), while the sisters Johnson perform a conventionally competitive femininity, on stage and back, where they are surrounded by dressing room mirrors that refract and amplify their mutual exasperation and shared love of songs about dead dogs their mama taught them.
Much as they might resist, these slow-going adults are going to have to catch up or move out of the way. While the corporate threat is obvious (embodied by a suit called the Axeman and played by the odious Tommy Lee Jones), the old-timey rhythms of life no longer seem viable. This is precisely what the radio show exploits of course, and the film treats the sentiment with a mix of irony and affection. While G.K. ostensibly promotes powdermilk biscuits and duct tape on the air, he is also, much like Keillor does weekly, remembering (or imagining) an experience before iPods and Blackberries, when you didn’t need to keep track of your “assets.” Speaking slowly, valuing minutiae, and encouraging improvisation, they don’t so much hold back time as stretch it out, admire or at least note each moment before it flies away.
Typically, such concern emerges when death feels close. Yolanda, for instance, feels pressured by loss — in the forms of exhausted romance, inevitable death, and impending unemployment — but she’s also able to ignore it, to sing the same songs she’s performed a thousand times already without fully realizing how “desperately sad” that might make her. She also takes pride and finds energy in her daughter, and it is in Lola that Prairie Home Companion locates something like a conventional narrative, for better and worse.
With Yolanda watching from offstage, Lola makes her first public performance on the last night of the show. And in this moment, she emerges from her cocoon in the dressing room into a kind of lit-up, much-appreciated sensation, revealing old-fashioned talent and scrappy ingenuity. Wearing a t-shirt reading “Extinction is forever,” she swings into an unexpected rendition of “Frankie and Johnny,” stretched out (to fill air time) with bits from her mom’s old dead dog song and seemingly unthinking revisions of her own suicide poem (“Waving hello to god”).
Lola’s transformation, like Lohan’s, is heartening (you’re hoping that Lohan stays in touch with her new friend Meryl Streep, with whom she posed for a W cover, and that the older actor’s sanity influences her). By film’s end, Lola’s transformed yet again, resembling a corporate sort herself, in a snappy suit and wielding a cell phone with headset, swooping through town to offer her mother advice on looking after her “assets.” It’s a brief moment, a lively and broadly comic coda. It’s something else as well, an acknowledgment rather than an out-of-hand condemnation of time’s toll. It’s possibility.