The first scene in Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion consists solely of voiceover by hard-boiled house detective/security guard Guy Noir (Kevin Kline). Voiceover, we are told in screenwriting class, is a tool of the lazy. So why would Altman and Keillor use such a device? Because in old-fashioned radio dramas, the detective would always speak in voiceover, and both this film and the show it's based on are unashamed celbrations of that tradition.

One of Guy's lines is something to the effect of "St. Paul, a city that knows how to keep its secrets." I laughed at the time because it seemed absurd to apply the conventions of noir to any city in Minnesota. After viewing the film, I was aware that it was not meant to be absurd. St. Paul is indeed a city that knows how to keep secrets, or rather how to keep things close to the chest, and far from being a throwaway gag, this is the central theme of the movie.

More than any movie I have ever seen, A Prairie Home Companion is about the Midwest. Specifically, it is about the part of the Midwest that is stoic, pragmatic and Lutheran. The film takes place on the last night of an old-time radio variety program, but the show's announcer and host, Garrison Keillor (or GK; like John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, he is not playing himself so much as an alternate-reality variant) never acknowledges this fact on the air or in private; his reasons are never clear although they are speculated upon, but it seems to be some combination of a) the belief that if you ignore a problem, it deals with itself; b) if you can't fix something, it's best not to worry about it. Having lived in the Midwest for my entire life (and if I was not raised so far to the north as Keillor, I was nevertheless raised in the same Lutheran tradition, and that counts for a great deal more than an outsider might think).

I must interrupt myself to warn that I'll be freely spoiling plot details from this point, which is not a terrible sin in a film that contains almost no plot, but this might be a good time to stop reading if you haven't seen the film and you care about that sort of thing.

It is possible that no state produces more fatalists than Minnesota, and a pervasive feeling of death runs through the piece. We see this at the start, when teenaged Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan) first appears, and promptly establishes herself as a suicide-obsessed poet, daughter to one of the radio show's headliners (in a distant and quiet echo of Mike Altman, son of the director, who wrote the lyrics to "Suicide is Painless" for MASH). While this is played for laughs, it quickly turns into a more philosophical turn, when a Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen) arrives mysteriously. It is quickly apparent that she is an angel of death, taking the life of one of the program's old stars; but she is also implicitly present for the death of the show. This is never stated clearly, but is brought to the fore during the film's strangest and therefore most interesting scene, in which the Woman speaks to Keillor backstage about her death, which occured while listening to "A Prairie Home Companion" in the car. Keillor told a joke which caused her to laugh so hard as to lose control; but as she describes it, her last thought was the realization that the joke wasn't funny, and when Keillor realizes which joke she means, he clearly agrees.

To bring things back to earth and the Midwest, Keillor's response to all of this death and aging is blunt and pragmatic: "I'm at an age where if I start giving eulogies, I'll never do anything else."

At this point, I've made A Prairie Home Companion sound like the most mirthless film imaginable, which could not be farther from the truth. Indeed, the film is a rarity in the Altman canon: it is a warm and friendly film, a celebration of the vaudeville genealogy of the radio show. As I mentioned earlier, it is essentially plotless; what it has instead is a collection of scenes of performers onstage, preparing to go onstage, or simply hanging around waiting. The film evokes one of Altman's classic themes, the idea of collaboration and community (specifically, it plays like a cross between Nashville and The Company). For the first time, Altman has made a film to celebrate his characters, rather than cynically point out their weaknesses. It is a profoundly, even transcendentally nice film.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the music. One could be forgiven for viewing the film as a concert documentary, given the sheer number of songs performed by the cast. There are almost no scenes in which there is absolutely no music whatsoever, although it is often only playing in the background. Indeed, this is one of the most Altmanesque touches in the film; we hardly ever see a full performance, but instead part of the performance, then some people watching, then some people not watching, etc. In other words, the director's celebrated cross cutting and aural overlapping is in full swing here, and it's just as busy and satisfying as it has ever been.

Altman is perhaps not a born stylist, but when he's working he's really working well. There are zooms in this film, of course (no director has ever used zooms so perfectly as Altman), but there is also a pronounced attention to framing, which I'm unaccustomed to seeing in his work. I particularly think of the scenes between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as the Johnson sisters, where their melancholy and fragmentation are neatly evoked by the use of makeup mirrors to create frames within the frame. In general, the mise en scène is full of delights like that, tiny snippets of narrative detail that the film never calls attention to: the furniture on the inside of the stage's setpiece, Guy Noir's overflowing box of unsolved cases. I'm going to cut myself off right now, with much left unsaid about the uniformly perfect acting, the metanarrative significance of the adaptation (real-life performers mix with actors playing characters mix with actors playing characters from the real-life show), and a whole hell of a lot else, just because I'm already running a bit long here.

We've reached the point where every Altman film might be his last, and as morbid as it is to say, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it would mean if A Prairie Home Companion were to end his career. I, for one, would be satisfied. It's quintessentially Altman, in many ways, but it's also his first mostly happy and mostly humane project. I know many people have qualified the film, saying it's good, but not Altman's best, or that it's Altman-lite. I disagree. I honestly feel this film ranks alongside his very best work, and may be the most purely enjoyable film he's ever made.