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Cookie's Fortune

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 2 April 1999

  Directed by Robert Altman

Starring Glenn Close, Julianne Moore,
Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Charles Dutton,
Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty,
David Moffat, and Lyle Lovett

Written by Anne Rapp

It’s become startlingly clear that Robert Altman is more fun to watch riffing on the lightweight screenplays of other people than producing his own work anymore. Cookie’s Fortune is rich in characters, quirky and informed by an enveloping sense of community. Altman’s prowling camerawork is more elegant than ever, ever creeping through scenes to discover and rediscover character, and with a cast of fine performers (and some not so fine that Altman coaxes to their best performances to date) there’s plenty to discover. Or at least there should be. When you get past the subtle flourishes, the warmth generated by the ensemble, and the individual character marvels, Cookie’s Fortune is so slight a work it’s amazing it was ever made at all.

The plot revolves around the death of a beloved old woman, Jewel Mae Orcutt (Patricia Neal in a delightful, and all-too-brief appearance), known to her friends as Cookie, in a small southern town where everyone knows everyone and grudges and reputations are both taken deadly seriously. But I get ahead of myself. The always great Charles S. Dutton is Willis Richland, who furtively swipes a bottle of Wild Turkey from his favorite bar, climbs through the window into a house, and starts grabbing handguns from a case. The aging Cookie starts down the steps and a confrontation appears imminent, but it’s just a typically cute bit of character business. Willis is Cookie’s handyman who’s locked himself out and is cleaning her guns because he promised her he’s do so – never mind that it’s 3am. The two stay up late swapping stories, playfully scoring wrongs against one another in a tally that reaches into the hundreds (they’ve obviously been at this a long time), and simply sharing lives that have seen many years pass together. They’re just two people in a town of characters (it’s an Altman film – would we have it any other way?), but become the central characters in the drama about to unfold.

But I get ahead of myself again. An Easter play is rehearsed down the street, planned to the last detail by the town’s matriarch of all things artistic Camille (Glenn Close, vamping it up so much she feels like one of the overacting performers in her amateur hour). Her ditzy sister Cora (Julianne Moore) is the star, a rather lifeless Salome who walks through her part much like she walks through life, under the constant direction of her controlling sister. These two are among Cookie’s last living relatives but they spend little time with their socially disinterested aunt. Emma (Liv Tyler), Cora’s estranged daughter and Cookie’s favorite relative, has returned home and taken a job as a catfish gutter and delivery driver for the lovesick Manny Hood (Lyle Lovett). Tough luck, Manny, her destiny lies with rookie cop Jason (Chris O’Donnell), a hopelessly brain dead figure of a lawman and something of a klutz as well (Altman indulges though him some rather overworked slapstick moments the film could have done very nicely without). Jason works for the no nonsense police Lieutenant Lester (Ned Beatty), a laid back figure with little use for bullshit but plenty of understanding for the colorful characters that populate his district.

One day Cookie decides she’s been lonely long enough and wants to join her husband, who just happens to be dead. Camille discovers her suicide and panics – how dare anyone in the family commit suicide?  It’s simply not done. With the dubious help of Cora, they turn the suicide into a crime scene and transform Cookie into the victim of a robbery (not too far off the truth as Camille pockets some of her favorite pieces from Cookie’s collection, including her jewel studded "C" she wears proudly around her neck – a piece of costume jewelry she treats like the crown jewels). With the crime scene carefully in place, she calls the cops.

Unfortunately the evidence all points to Willis, whose fingerprints are on the gun, the window and all over the house. Into this cozy town of secrets and friendships walks the city-bred police investigator Otis Tucker (Courtney B. Vance), and off to Willis’ side charge Emma (who joins Willis in his jail cell – which incidentally is left wide open throughout his incarceration) and Jack (Donald Moffat), Willis’ lawyer and the play’s King Herod. As Tucker checks into Willis’ alibi and analyzes the evidence from the crime scene (which is in constant danger of being eradicated by Camille, who blithely ignores crime scene tape to take possession of "her" house), Cookie’s will is found and secrets are soon to be revealed.

Altman must have seen something in this material for he does wonders with it short of finding the drama hidden in the plot. What he does uncover is a dozen or so character sketches that he fills out just short of full portraits – but then that sketchiness that rumbles under every character is another hallmark that makes even Altman’s least films comes to life in moments. Patricia Neal delivers such a winning performance as Cookie you wonder where she’s been all these years, and Charles Dutton is wonderful as usual, filling Willis with a loyalty and love explains why everyone rallies around him. Ned Beatty finds facets in his easy going charm that gives his support of Willis all the weight of the world, all loaded into a simple statement: "I fish with the man." Apologizing profusely for incarcerating Willis, he spends his free time hanging out in the cell with Willis and Emma. Altman even finds a seeming spontaneity in Liv Tyler and Chris O’Donnell, the young lovers who keep running off to the storeroom for a little nooky while the adults turn a blind eye and a wry smile. In fact the only weakness in this otherwise funky old town is Glenn Close’s performance. She seems to be having the time of her life as a small-town Norma Desmond, gesturing like an opera star and taking the responsibility of bringing culture to this backwater single-handedly (she takes writing credit with Oscar Wilde for her "adaptation" of "Salome"). Her overworked, arch performance is out of place in the kooky underplayed folks around her.

Where the film falls is in the conflict – is there any worry that Willis will be sent up for murder? Altman throws all pretense of a mystery out with the old bait and trades any suspense for a lollygagging character comedy. It’s as if he’s entered an agreement with the audience that, since we all know that these things work out in the end, he’s going to give us something different. Which is fine as far as that goes, but with the suspense tossed to the wind and the conflict turning entirely on the brassy ego of Camille, there isn’t much narrative on which to hang the film. Altman is often at his best in the tensions between his lanky style and the narrative demands of screenplays, but this one, a first from former producer Anne Rapp, simply doesn’t give him anything to work against.

I’ve found Altman’s work of late to suffer from the same problem (and I’m surely to find some arguments here). With his critical rehabilitation in the 1990s beginning with The Player, his work has varied greatly and his most personal projects, films in which he adapted the screenplay (Short Cuts) or wrote an original script (Ready To Wear, Kansas City) have either collapsed under its own weight of self importance or fizzled away in meandering self indulgence. Then came the eerie, unsettling The Gingerbread Man, a stock John Grisham story (his first original for the screen and his weakest story to date) transformed by Altman into an unusually compelling thriller grounded in quirky character and an overwhelming sense of unease and danger, his most cinematically exciting work in years. Given the challenge of material seemingly ill-suited to his style, he made something new, unique, exciting out of it (though it was ultimately dumped by PolyGram and flopped theatrically, despite a number of good reviews).

Would that he found something that fine in Cookie’s Fortune, which ultimately reveals itself to be like the costume jewelry owned by Cookie. It sparkles and entices and looks to be something more than it is, and Altman shows it off as if, like Cookie and Camille, he mistakes it for the real thing. Under close scrutiny, however, it reveals itself as nothing more than paste and pretties standing in for actual jewels. Cookie’s Fortune is a genuinely sweet and generous visit with a handful of characters, but bereft of a story worthy of them and a mystery that all too easily wraps itself up, the film is all good company and no drama. Finally it concludes in juvenile "just deserts" that feels unearned and uncharacteristically mean spirited. I quite enjoyed the film, but while Cookie may not rank among Robert Altman’s least, it’s far from his best.

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