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Feel-good Fortune

Altman's back with a strong Southern drama

Has any major American director had quite so many career swings as Robert Altman? Maybe not, but if there's one thing the last 30 years have made clear, it is that it's never safe to count Altman out. The mid- and late '90s have been particularly unfriendly to him. After his big comeback with The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993), he made three unsatisfying features in a row: Pret-a-Porter, (1994), Kansas City (1996) and The Gingerbread Man (1998). Curiously, his best, and most acclaimed, film during this period was Jazz '34 (1996), a documentary offshoot of Kansas City.

Despite its unpromising title -- it took me till after the end credits rolled to notice the bad pun -- his latest film, Cookie's Fortune, while not one of his very best, is a sharp positive turn from its immediate predecessors. It's a strange, entertaining little film that derives its weird tension from a blend of comic and serious tones.

Cookie's Fortune takes place in Holly Springs, Mississippi, a friendly but sleepy town in the New South. The opening sequence cuts back and forth between two characters whose utterly contrasting actions and personalities will shape the plot. Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton) is a portly, middle-aged black man who looks after the ancient Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal); his opposite number is Cookie's niece, Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), who, in a parallel but vastly different way, looks after her slow-witted, childlike sister, Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore).

When we meet Camille, she is busy directing a rehearsal of the town's upcoming Easter pageant, her own "improved" version of Oscar Wilde's Salome. The cast includes a goofy young sheriff's deputy named Jason (Chris O'Donnell), the town lawyer (Donald Moffat) and, as Salome, sister Cora, whom Camille manipulates, both on and offstage, as though she were merely a prettier, a-nimatronic projection of Camille's own self-image.

As Camille ineptly puts her minions through their melodramatic paces, Willis, a little bit tipsy, is breaking into Cookie's house, because he has earlier promised to clean all the guns in her late husband's display case. He and Cookie are clearly the best of pals, continually needling each other, but it is obvious that, even stoked on Wild Turkey, Willis has a steadier grasp on things than Cookie, a potent matriarch whose mind and powers are beginning to slip away from her.

The next day Willis tries to convince Cora's daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), to come to Easter dinner. ("No turkey," he tells her, enticingly. "We're making catfish enchiladas!") Emma is the only one in the family Cookie can stand, and vice versa. At the same time, she's going through a rebellious testing of her independence, which involves cutting herself off from family, getting into minor scrapes with the law and indulging her raging hormones.

As it turns out, there is to be no Easter dinner. Without divulging too many details, let's just say that Cookie passes away in a fashion that Camille considers scandalous and indecent. Since Camille is the one who discovers the body, she takes it upon herself to "restage" the crime scene, as if Cookie's death were just another amateur theatricality. As Camille monkeys with the evidence, you can see where this is heading: Willis's fingerprints are all over the guns. It's not as though anybody in Holly Springs entertains even the vaguest notion that Willis murdered Cookie; everyone knows that he loved her like kin. But since Holly Springs doesn't get many homicides, investigators from the big city arrive to help out. And, of course, looking unsentimentally at the evidence, they arrest Willis as the prime suspect, much to the irritation of local sheriff Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty). "How do I know he couldn't have done it?" Lester tells prosecutor Otis Tucker (Courtney B. Vance). "Because I've fished with him!"

For better or worse, Cookie's Fortune takes place in a South where race simply doesn't exist as an issue. The fact that Willis and Tucker are black and most of the other characters are white is never more than an amusing detail in their relationships, about as important as who has what hair color. And though it's refreshing to see a Southern tale where race is a nonissue, it's hard to believe that things could be quite this cuddly and mellow in a small town in Mississippi.

Like most Altman films, Cookie's Fortune is more about character than plot, more about the interconnections within a community than about a single character. Even in his less successful phases, Altman's critical reputation enables him to attract nearly any actor he wants, and few directors are as adept at making everyone look good -- even nonprofessionals such as Nina Van Pallandt (in The Long Goodbye), Lyle Lovett (here and in several earlier films) and singer Rufus Thomas (in a small part here).

The performances in Cookie's Fortune are consistently engaging and appealing, particularly Dutton's, Beatty's and Tyler's. Close's performance is the showiest, and also the most problematic. Camille is quite simply a compendium of the most loathsome character traits -- she's vain, greedy, pretentious, snobbish, vindictive, hypocritical and almost self-absorbed. "Narcissistic personality disorder" only begins to hint at how vile she is. A schedule board announcing "Salome by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon" may be basically a throwaway joke, but it perfectly conveys the extent of Camille's self-involvement.

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