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
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
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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