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by: Scott Renshaw

In his last film, 1998's little-seen THE GINGERBREAD MAN, Robert Altman took his unique perspective to the finer points of the legal system's workings in the American South. Apparently he decided he hadn't yet explored it in all possible depth, because he's back in Dixie for COOKIE'S FORTUNE. The region's easy rhythms and idiosyncracies seem to suit the film-maker well, and he seems to be having a heck of a good time with his visits there. COOKIE'S FORTUNE finds Altman laying down a blues jam of intertwining characters spiced with a deft, dry comic touch into a surprising, off-beat entertainment.

The Cookie of the title is eccentric matriarch Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal), strong-willed inabitant of a Holly Springs, Mississippi manor with her black houseman Willis (Charles S. Dutton). Cookie is estranged from her only family in town, nieces Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) and Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore), but that doesn't stop the overbearing Camille from considering everything connected to her family her business. That's especially true when Camille visits Cookie's home, only to discover a scene which could potentially bring embarrassment to the family, and contrives a story to cover it up. Her story sets in motion a strange chain of events which finds innocent people jailed, secrets revealed, and plenty of Wild Turkey consumed.

COOKIE'S FORTUNE is probably most easily summarized as a Southern spin on FARGO's tale of polite, common-sense police investigation, but that doesn't entirely capture the film's quirky rhythms. On the surface it's the story of Camille's manipulations -- of simple-minded Cora, of Cora's wild-child expatriate daughter Emma (Liv Tyler), of everyone involved in the investigation at Cookie's estate -- providing Glenn Close with a grand showcase for a woman who turns her own life into a Tennessee Williams play. Yet even as Camille's plans begin to unravel, COOKIE'S FORTUNE is less about the suspense and tension of guilt exposed than it is about the pleasures of watching it meander to its inevitable conclusion. As it is in many Altman films, the plot -- well-constructed as it is by Anne Rapp -- works best as a place for a handful of appealing performances to unfold.

And there are certainly plenty of appealing performances, of which Close's is only the most gaudy. Charles S. Dutton wraps himself around Willis's good-natured roguery, giving the character a well-worn charm; Ned Beatty similarly entertains as the police chief little concerned with by-the-book procedure among friends; Matt Malloy has a funny minor role as an overzealous investigator. Even Chris O'Donnell, so often an attractive blank hole as an actor, acquits himself well in the ideal role of a puppydog-eager-to-please deputy. The only stumble comes from Julianne Moore, who doesn't know quite what to do with Cora, whether to make her a simple naif or an even sadder case of a woman with a genuine developmental disability. Fortunately she's a rare false note in Altman's smooth orchestration.

COOKIE'S FORTUNE is the kind of unconventional narrative of lingering takes that may leave some viewers shifting in their seats waiting for the point of it all. For Altman, in this particular case, taking the time to get to the point is actually part of the point. It's a comedy of details dropped in almost off-handedly, and others -- a hand literally caught in the cookie jar, for instance -- underlined at just the right moment. It doesn't add up to all that much either as character study or as crime drama, nor does it take the straightest path between any two points. It's merely a lazy, crazy, consistently amusing diversion about a place where you only know the true measure of a man (or a woman) after you've gone fishing together. It's a place Altman might consider visiting more often.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 sweet cookies: 8.


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