Altman Is One Smart Cookie
Robert Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune” is a gem among the fabled director’s ensemble movies, a Southern charmer--full of good humor and mature wisdom--that views human foibles with the bemused compassion of a Jean Renoir. This beautiful, beguiling film marks the feature debut of its writer, Anne Rapp, who, as a veteran script supervisor, clearly has developed a sense of the importance of structure and characterization, but the vision she has provided Altman goes way beyond craft. This is a film filled with a patient and loving understanding and a knowledge of the value of subtlety and ease.
Its setting, the actual Mississippi town of Holly Springs, is so full of period charm, captured glowingly by ace cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, that you feel like taking off and visiting the place. Living in the decayed grandeur of a splendid antebellum house is Patricia Neal’s hearty, uninhibited Jewel Mae Orcutt, known by one and all as Cookie, including her longtime family retainer Willis (Charles S. Dutton, a warm and powerful presence). Cookie remains full of spirit, but she’s becoming forgetful, and that worries the devoted Willis as much as the fact that it’s only a matter of time before she can no longer climb the stairs to her bedroom. For her part, Cookie, played with such resonance and gusto by Neal, is increasingly overcome with longing for her beloved late husband, Buck, so much so that she decides it’s time to end it all.
As luck would have it, Cookie, having gone to her reward, is discovered by her ferociously proper and pretentious spinster niece Camille (Glenn Close), who’s in the midst of directing a church Easter pageant derived from Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” with her younger sister Cora (Julianne Moore) in the title role. (Camille’s revisions of Wilde lead her to claim a co-writing credit!) Suicide is too scandalous for Camille to stomach, so, drawing on her self-proclaimed theatrical expertise, she makes her aunt’s death look like a murder without giving a thought to the consequences. Indeed, so self-involved is Camille that it never occurs to her that when the police tape off Cookie’s house to protect the crime scene that it’s meant to be off-limits to her as well. Bossy, obtuse, dominating Cora totally, Camille is labeled by her independent niece Emma (Liv Tyler), who’s returned to town just before Cookie’s death, as a “stupid, insensitive bitch.”
Calamity compounds calamity, and a Shakespearean sense of the human comedy surfaces as the convoluted plot, propelled by the urges of human nature, both noble and otherwise, plays itself out under Altman’s affectionate, never condescending, gaze.
In this film, the characters really are “characters,” and with what relish Altman’s actors play them. For all the trouble Camille unleashes, she’s too unintentionally funny to hate, and you can’t wish upon her a villain’s fate, so clueless and pathetic is she, and played with a wonderfully focused daffiness by Close. Moore’s lovely Cora proves to be unexpectedly far from docile. Tyler’s Emma is smart, headstrong, living in the here and now, attracted to her old boyfriend, a wet-behind-the-ears policeman (Chris O’Donnell), and attracting to her wistful new boss (Lyle Lovett). Ned Beatty is the wise local cop who has to sort out the mess Camille has created, and seemingly not helping matters are a pair of comically zealous out-of-town investigators (Courtney B. Vance and Matt Malloy). Equally wise, however, is the leading local attorney (Donald Moffat).
This is a glorious cast, and it makes “Cookie’s Fortune” an unalloyed pleasure as deep dark secrets start tumbling out, one after another. “Cookie’s Fortune,” which knows how to treat serious matters with humor, is to be treasured as an utterly distinctive work by one of America’s finest filmmakers.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for the depiction of a violent act, and for sensuality. Times guidelines: The film is not suitable for the very young.
Glenn Close: Camille Dixon
Julianne Moore: Cora Duvall
Liv Tyler: Emma Duvall
Chris O’Donnell: Jason Brown
Charles S. Dutton: Willis Richland
Patricia Neal: Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt
An October Films presentation. Director Robert Altman. Producers Altman and Etchie Stroh. Executive producer Willi Baer. Screenplay by Anne Rapp. Cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita. Editor Abraham Lim. Music David A. Stewart. Costumes Dona Granata. Production designer Stephen Altman. Art director Richard Johnson. Set decorator Susan J. Emshwiller. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
At selected theaters.