Cookie's Fortune
directed by Robert Altman
(October Films, 1999)

Welcome to Holly Springs, antebellum cotton town and center of social and cultural life, home of 13 generals of the Confederacy and Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt.

Ms. Orcutt (Patricia Neal) is the center of a murder investigation made infinitely more complex by the fact that she wasn't murdered. She committed suicide. Only two people know that, however: Cookie's sisters-in-law, Camille Orcutt (Glenn Close), who made the suicide look like a murder, and Cora Orcutt Duvall (Julianne Moore), who called the police to report it.

And it might all have ended there had the evidence not suddenly started pointing to Cookie's live-in handyman, Willis Richland (Charles Dutton).

Only one person -- Richland -- knows that Richland didn't kill Cookie, though a lot of people suspect it, not the least of whom is local police officer Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty). Boyle is sure Richland is innocent, he says, because he's "fished with him."

So begins Cookie's Fortune, Robert Altman's unmurder mystery set in a small southern town where everybody is related to everyone else, but not always in the way they think they are.

Like all of Altman's best work, it's an ensemble piece, with nearly a dozen actors sharing screen time and antics that range from the slightly offbeat -- local voyeur Manny Hood (Lyle Lovett) offering to put a better light in his assistant's (Liv Tyler's) bedroom -- to the downright silly -- Camille denying that Cookie has committed suicide as she chews up the suicide note). All this goes on, of course, while a man's life is on the line for something he didn't do. If anything, that brutal irony makes Cookie's Fortune even funnier than it already is.

Part of the humor is derived from the way the performers play the characters.

Dutton is superb as the bourbon-bitten handyman (he never takes a drink before Tom Brokaw, he says), wobbling his way across town to Theo's blues bar and back. And Neal is dourly sympathetic as the pipe-smoking Cookie, a woman almost too weak to make it up the stairs, but strong enough to take her own life when she knows it's time.

Close has a field day as flaky spinster Camille, who divides her time between rewriting Oscar Wilde plays and bossing around her sister, Cora. But Moore tops them all as the hapless Cora, chosen to play Salome in her sister's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play of the same name -- it's a far cry from her sulky performance in 1998's Psycho, which is good news for both her and her audience.

Altman's talent for small touches is there as well. He gives us a gun cabinet door that always swings open at the worse possible moment, a growling blues score that provides the perfect touch of menace and a bundle of crime-scene tape that seems to take on a life of its own. More importantly, he pokes his camera around town like it was some kind of village snoop. The effect is to make you feel that something is always just about to happen , but you're never sure what. And you're never disappointed when it does.

In the '70s, Altman entertained audiences with movies that were both atrociously funny and oddly profound: M*A*S*H, Nashville and Brewster McCloud, to name a few.

Cookie's Fortune has something to say about family, but it falls at least a foot short of deep. Altman's sense of humor, however, is right on the mark, and there's nothing quite like watching a bunch of old pros cavorting with a bunch of young pros.

It may not be the funniest film of the year, but it's a sure bet for most fun to watch.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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