Cookie's Fortune Movie Review

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"Cookie's Fortune," an ode to the charms and afflictions of smalltown Southern life from superlative director Robert Altman, opens, appropriatelyenough, with a leisurely, cinematic stroll around Holly Springs, Miss.,introducing the players in what will become a sympathetic satire of DixieGothic manners and mores.

We see sheriff's deputies with nothing to do but drivearound shining their spotlights here and there and talking unceasinglyabout fishing. We meet purse-lipped old maid Camille Dixon (Glenn Close)as she tenaciously directs a rehearsal of Oscar Wilde's "Salome,"which she has rewritten as a church morality play. We meet her slow-witted,obedient sister Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore) who is frustrating Camillewith her strenuous over-acting as the play's wanton lead.

We meet lonely commercial fisherman Manny (Lyle Lovett,as oddly understated as ever) as he pays a peeping tom visit to the vanwhere Cora's pretty, rebellious daughter Emma (Liv Tyler) has been livingsince her unceremonious return to Holly Springs after a failed Biloxi romance.

And we follow genial Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton)as he stumbles home from a night at a ramshackle blues bar located in atin shanty on the outskirts of town, only to awaken Jewel Mae "Cookie"Orcutt (Patricia Neal), Camille's and Cora's eccentric aunt who sharesher weathered ante-bellum home with him.

A vital, sassy, pipe-smoking widow with an acerbic witthat she uses to barb Willis in a decades-long game of friendly one-upsmanship,Cookie, as you might have guessed from the title, is the movie's linchpin.It is her blissful suicide, calculated to reunite her with her long-deadhusband, which sets in motion a clumsy cover-up by an ashamed Camille thatwill eventually sends all the family's skeletons cascading out of the closet.

When inheritance-minded Camille finds Cookie's body, sheliterally eats her suicide note, then concocts a murder scene that unintentionallylands devoted Willis in jail.

A simple and subtle, yet outrageous and intricate, comedywith the kind of inconsequential embellishments that make all Altman'sbest films ring so true, "Cookie's Fortune" ranks right up therewith "Nashville," "M*A*S*H" and "The Player."

Peppering his picture with his trademark unhurried camerazooms, crafty symbolism and almost subconscious strokes of character, backstory, community and locale, the director makes even insignificant subplotscaptivating.

But his focus is never scattered as he alternates betweenCamille's estate-squatting at Cookie's empty mansion, Willis' stay in theslammer (which is so casual the sheriff doesn't even lock the cell) andthe somewhat inept murder investigation.

As always, Altman also culls extraordinary performancesfrom his large stable of talented players, that includes Courtney B. Vance,Chris O'Donnell and Ned Beatty, among others. But special notice goes toClose as the ridiculously austere Camille, Tyler and Dutton as Cookie'sstaunch compatriots (and the only two people in Holly Springs playing withfull deck of cards) and above all, to Neal, who instills Cookie with marvelous,irascible charm.

Although it has one unavoidable logical flaw -- the factthat a simple gunpowder test would solve the central "crime"in no time at all -- "Cookie's Fortune" is an undeniable Altmanclassic that places him back on track after a few films that missed theirmark.

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Cookie's Fortune Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, April 9, 1999

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