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Cookie's Fortune

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Cookie's Fortune

Starring: Glenn Close, Charles S. Dutton
Director: Robert Altman
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: April 1999
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Courtney B. Vance, Donald Moffat, Lyle Lovett

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

Robert Altman's latest begins with the free-floating point of view sometimes employed by the novelist Sinclair Lewis. We first see a black man inside a dark bar, Theo's Place. He's drinking heavily, and when he leaves he spots a cruiser passing in the street. The drunken Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton) drops his pint of Wild Turkey, returns to the bar and steals another.

Meanwhile, across the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi, we are shown a rehearsal of an Easter pageant, Camilla Dixon's (Glenn Close) version of Oscar Wilde's 'Salome'. Camilla is bossing around the players, including her sheepish and slow-witted sister Cora (Julianne Moore) and a young sheriff's deputy, Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell).

Thus Altman establishes the arena in which his story unfolds. He adds dashes of other characters to the recipe, and somehow manages quite a successful result: a small movie with a large cast, an art film that is in no way snooty or snotty, the kind of picture that stars worth their salt give up scads of cash to be in.

These threads of plot keep crossing as the narrative gets passed among the many eccentric and convincing characters. Willis appears to be breaking into a house through a kitchen window. He stumbles upon a cabinet and begins to remove several handguns, just as an old woman descends the steps and surprises him. We discover they are friends, and the woman (Patricia Neal) - the Cookie of the title, Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt, beloved widow of Buck Orcutt - treats this man like a son. The two keep a running count of wrongs they've done each other, and Cookie has been wronged more often: it's a playful and endearing piece of characterization.

We find out that Cookie's relatives have abandoned her. Nieces Camilla and Cora are not on good terms with her (rather, Camilla is not, and Cora blindly follows any direction coming from Camilla). Niece Emma Duvall (apparently Cora's daughter, played by Liv Tyler) has just returned to town from a life of alleged decadence. She hasn't had the chance to see Great Aunt Cookie before the old woman, in a state aggravated by loneliness, senility, and some heavenly descriptions she got from Willis, uses one of Buck's old pistols to blow out her brains. What keeps our interest is the filmmaker's handling of the body's discovery. Again the camera seems to be floating: Altman is wisely unafraid to sustain a shot when very little is happening. Hence we see Camilla searching the house in real time, and we are treated to a masterful scene when she finds the body in bed, a ruined feather pillow covering the head, pistol dangling from a dead finger. Thinking quickly, Camilla reveals her true colors: she begins to gather any traces of Cookie's crime against the family name; knocking over jewelry boxes to simulate a robbery; stuffing the suicide note, which is addressed to Willis, into her mouth, to hide it from the approaching Cora; finally lifting the pistol out of the peaceful grip of Cookie's hand. In short, Camilla flagrantly violates the crime scene.

Needless to say, Camilla's actions hold serious repercussions for most of the characters. What is very impressive is Altman's sense of humor - a refined dark comedy that also functions as social satire. This director is experienced in manipulating the large cast, as he did in 'Mash', 'Nashville', 'Short Cuts' and others. We watch brilliant spurts of characterization followed by astounding revelations about human nature. Viewers can tell Altman is always on task, whether it's coaxing crazy expressions out of the actors, timing the implications of a lingering shot, or even including a couple of visual jokes other directors would shun (such as Close's Camilla getting caught with her hand in Cookie's cookie jar!).

The acting is thoroughly solid in this piece. Close shows her mastery of megalomania: she plays Camilla as an aging Southern belle more concerned with appearances than with family relations. Sister Cora, who sleeps in the same room with Camilla, and kneels dutifully during Camilla's self-righteous prayers, is a classic example of a dominated adult. Sometimes Moore's expressions are hilarious in their simple-mindedness, as when she sucks in her lips, as though they are zipped, when one of the cops comments about the terrible scene in the bedroom upstairs. Moore has worked with Altman before, in 'Short Cuts', the adaptation of Raymond Carver's superb short stories, and she shows a marvelous range here. Cora is so plain she's almost unattractive, and some of the most funny and subtle moments are given to her, as when she incorporates Biblical-sounding poetry from 'Salome' in her everyday speech. Just as good is Patricia Neal, the title character, as she shows her attachment to Willis, and especially to her dead husband Buck. Finally, Charles S. Dutton seems to be the main character - he links the other characters with strands of plot that many times display their foibles and his virtue (as when he buys a pint of bourbon and returns it to the shelf in Theo's bar).

Supporting roles are jewels as well. Chris O'Donnell as Jason Brown is a green but over-confident deputy, and receives with telling ignorance the condescension of Camilla and his superior officers. Jason is in lust with Emma, played with low-key loyalty by Liv Tyler. Ned Beatty plays Lester Boyle, another deputy, who is not afraid to point out the incompetence of senior investigators on the case of Cookie's death. I don't know if Beatty has the most acting credits among the cast members, but he's certainly one of the more natural-acting veterans Altman has ever found. In a smallish role, Lyle Lovett's Manny Hood is quietly obsessed with Emma, employing her in his catfish business and refurbishing a caboose in which he is hoping she will live.

My sole complaint is the convolutions that come in late. Yes, some of them are crucial and well-explained, but others seem like they're included out of respect for the novel from which Anne Rapp developed her screenplay. A few details are crammed in and possibly expendable.

Another of Altman's recent films, 'Gingerbread Man', is set in the South, and 'Cookie's Fortune' furthers the director's exploration of things American and gothic. There are wonderful depictions here of manses and gardens, gentility and jealousy. It would take me awhile to come up with a director comparable to Altman; if he were purely a writer he would be called literary, sprawling but coherent, sarcastic but touching. At last, he's an original, big-name independent whose small masterworks should be included in any canon

Copyright 1999 Mark OHara

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