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IN SHORT: Good Altman is still better than most everything out there. [Rated PG-13, 118 minutes]
That's what I wrote in an review of an earlier film by director Robert Altman. His new work, Cookie's Fortune is well made, but most of the surprise comes from Anne Rapp's screenplay, which saves a ton of twists for the very end. It gives lead actors Charles S. Dutton, Glenn Close and Julianne Moore character backgrounds that are defined just enough for them to go to town with their art. And they do.
Damned if I don't start writing like a film student every time I see an Altman flick. When he hits, he hits big. When he misses, the problem is rarely with his craft. Cookie's Fortune isn't a rip snorter, as The Player was, but in comparison with most of the stuff running the arthouse circuit, it's a helluva lot more enjoyable. Cranky isn't supposed to make comparisons, and I'm straying too close to the line. Let's lay out the story and get to the meat of the movie, the performances by a name brand cast, as listed above.
Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal) is old, childless, and slowly slipping into senile dementia in the Deep Southern town of Holly Springs, Mississippi. She's got a big, empty house and chests full of mementos of her late husband, Buck. Prominent among them is golden diamond and ruby necklace and a cabinet full of antique guns and rifles. Cookie smokes a pipe and is cared for by Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), a middle aged black man who lives in a small caretaker's house out back.
Cookie has two nieces. Camille Duvall (Glenn Close) rewrites Oscar Wilde and directs the church pageants; set at Easter, the obvious choice is the Story of Salome. (!) Doing the dance of the seven veils is dimwit sister Cora (Julianne Moore) who will parrot any idea that Camille puts into her head. When they find their aunt lying in a bloody bed, pillow over her head and bullet in her brain, well, it's payday at the old plantation.
That Willis is busted for the "murder" angers Cora's illegitimate (it is suggested) and, as Aunt Camille put's it, "worthless tramp" of a daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler). Emma has the hots for newbie policeman Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell) and is, in turn, lusted after by Manny Hood (Lyle Lovett), who guts fish for a living.
Rapp's screenplay doesn't hide the fact that Willis is innocent -- Cranky thinks you're intelligent to guess the alternative yourself. What rocks is Glenn Close's command of the people in the town. Her Camille struts around with a superiority complex. She may not be arbiter of the community standards, but her word gets around and she holds a high position in the First Presbyterian Church. When she decides that the police have had more than enough time to check the evidence scene, she cuts the yellow tape and starts moving furniture and throwing dinner parties. The bloody laundry on the bed heads for the laundry. So much for any incriminating evidence.
That doesn't begin to plumb the depths of the rest of the cast: Ned Beatty as the town sheriff, who knows Willis is innocent because they "go fishing"; Matt Malloy and Courtney B. Vance as big time criminologists from the big city (actually the town next door, which is big enough to have criminologists on the police staff); and Donald Moffat as Jack Palmer, the only lawyer in town and thus the only man privy to all the secrets that the town holds. And there are secrets aplenty. The love triangle of Emma, Jason and Manny, such as it is, wins special note as one end is voyeuristic and the other is just plain hot. The stand out perfs come from Glenn Close and Julianne Moore who, when all is said and done, puts the kibosh on ideas about "standing in the community" and how "only crazy people don't commit suicide" (and Aunt Jewel -- Cookie -- was not crazy. Camille says so...). How the villain is brought down is delightful, but second to the secrets that spill out when lawyer client confidentiality is no longer an issue.
Cookie's Fortune plays out like the Deep South it is set in. Very slow. This gives our leads time to develop the particular tics and tactics of their characters. When things start popping in the last fifteen minutes or so, there's a definite "ooo" factor that kicks in. Cranky, actually, was giggling. Really.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Cookie's Fortune, he would have paid...
Consider it a date flick for the arthouse circuit. If you're looking for a big floppy moviegoing experience, you're better off waiting for pay-per-view or tape. Southern life is just too darn slow for us cityfied Northerners.
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