Everyone's facing the final curtain in A Prairie Home Companion - and that includes Robert Altman, directing for the final time before his death last November. If not a masterpiece to compare with MASH, Nashville or Short Cuts, then this still entertains in spades, uniting a suitably Altman-esque array of prime talent (from Kevin Kline to Lindsay Lohan), for the swansong broadcast of a long-running public-radio show. Lithely hopping between musical performance and backstage drama, its only mis-step is having an angel of death (Virginia Madsen) literally waiting in the wings.
Slinking enigmatically about Minnesota's Fitzgerald Theater in a Persil-white overcoat, Madsen's ethereal presence just doesn't sit right with the down-home tone of the unashamedly old-fashioned show. Still, given the circumstances, her key line "The death of an old man is not a tragedy" can't help but resonate beyond the story, which is really a loose-limbed, light-footed series of songs, skits and reminiscences. As ever, Altman gives his performers ample room to perform, whether it's pseudo-Chandler-esque narrator Kline ("She gave me a smile so sweet you could pour it on your pancakes"), the show's real-life creator-host Garrison Keillor, or country sisters Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin.
"STEEPED IN GENTLE AFFECTION"
Then there's smutty singing cowboys Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly, whose Bad Jokes set-piece delivers some of the best (and worst) laughs. Though Altman makes sure to stick it to The Man (embodied by Tommy Lee Jones's corporate plug-puller), the mood is more bittersweet than sour, steeped in an amber glow of gentle affection. It's a warm and dignified end to a sometimes erratic but often enthralling career.
A Prairie Home Companion is released in UK cinemas on Friday 5th January 2007.