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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

There's a popular belief that America's psychos hang out in big cities where they can hide their craziness amid millions of people who seem not to notice anything, while pleasantly eccentric people inhabit the cute little towns and villages of the country--especially those in the south. For all his reputation as a non-conformist, long-time director Robert Altman is not one to challenge this homespun conviction. In his considerable output, he has shown us the craziness of big cities in "The Player," a black comedy featuring a paranoid young movie executive (played by Tim Robbins) who is threatened by a disgruntled screenwriter--until he takes the law into his own hands. This biting examination of greed and power in a cosmopolitan ambiance was countered by his magnum opus, "Nashville," vignettes of twenty-four people who are in involved in a political rally in the country-music capital of the world--far from Tinseltown's variety of wheeling and dealing.

With his latest work, "Cookie's Fortune," the director appears to be pulling inward, affording us an entertaining but only mildly amusing comedy of the sort that playwright Beth Henley made famous with her greater flamboyance. Here, Altman focuses on neither a megalopolis nor a noted southern city but rather on a fairly nondescript town of Holly Spring, Mississippi, territory upon which the armies of North and South marched almost a century and half back but otherwise just a convenient spot to work out a comedy of manners from Anne Rapp's insular screenplay. A movie which could be taken as a fantasy by Northern Americans on what the rural south must still be like, "Cookie's Fortune" can be decoded as a gentle spoof on the zaniness that the rest of us think exists down there, particularly if the rest of us have read too much Tennessee Williams.

Altman typically trots out a variety of characters, each unique, so that the viewer could not possibly go away form one of his works confusing one with another. In "Cookie's Fortune," the central focus is on Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), a combination of Tennessee Williams' Blanche Dubois and Alexandra Del Lago--a grande dame who appears to live in the antebellum days of gentleman callers and the unequivocal need to keep up appearances. Her younger sister, Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore), lives across town and, often appearing slow and lacking confidence, she bends to the will of her older sibling. Emma Duvall (Liv Tyler), who is allegedly Cora's 18-year-old daughter, is the favorite relative of the bizarre title character, Cookie Orcutt (Patricia Neal), who has lived alone in a well-appointed house since the death some years back of her gun-collecting husband, Buck. But the aging Cookie reserves the major part of her affection for the town's most benevolent resident, Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), who frequently pilfers bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon from the local bar only to return the bottles secretly, new and filled, when he is able to buy them. Willis, whose love for catfish enchiladas competes with his passion for the bottle, looks out for Cookie's welfare and is particularly concerned when the old lady appears to be "losing it."

Altman, who was born and brought up in Missouri, has an obvious affection for his characters and if he confers idiosyncratic behaviors on them, he does so only to set each apart from the others as an archetype of a disappearing way of life in America. Lacking untoward animosity toward anyone, he casts most of his barbs against the pretentious Camille, who is so intent on upholding the honor of her family that when she finds her aunt Cookie lying dead on her bed from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, she takes steps to cover up the transgression. Informing her sister Cora only crazies commit suicide, certainly no one in her family, she eats the suicide note, makes the death appear to be the result of a robbery, and causes more trouble than she imagined when Willis is arrested for the crime, detained, and questioned by both the town's only lawyer Jack Palmer (Donald Moffat) and an ambitious investigator, Otis Tucker (Courtney B. Vance).

Altman declines as usual to focus the camera for long periods on one character or scene. We are made privy to a the down-home jailhouse cell which presents defendant, his good friend, his arresting officer, and his lawyer competing together in a game of scrabble. Our attention then shifts to a quick roll in the hay between young Emma Duvall and Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell), a sheriff whose prowess in the sack is undoubtedly more graceful than his bumbling conduct as a police officer.

Glenn Close plays well according to type as a domineering, garish patrician who directs the church play "Salome" with the same imperious spirit with which she dictates to her younger sister. Charles Dutton is the real catch as the friendly, wholly unpretentious citizen who asks little more of life than a bottle of bourbon, a plate of catfish, and the company of some of the good people of the whimsical town. The story cries out, however, for the off-the-wall zaniness of Beth Henley's comedy "The Miss Firecracker Contest," likewise a Southern Gothic but with broader humor, more suspense and conflict, and much larger-than-life characters.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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