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Less Filling, Tastes Great

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 1999

  Movie Critic

Cookie's Fortune
Liv Tyler and Charles S. Dutton star in Robert Altman's "Cookie's Fortune." (October Films)

Robert Altman
Glenn Close;
Julianne Moore;
Liv Tyler;
Chris O'Donnell;
Charles S. Dutton;
Patricia Neal;
Ned Beatty;
Courtney Vance;
Lyle Lovett
Running Time:
1 hour, 58 minutes
Contains the depiction of a violent act and sensuality
"Cookie's Fortune" won't go down as Robert Altman's most memorable movie. But it's a pleasant affair, whose greatest assets are its unhurried, benevolent atmosphere and the quiet, gem-like moments that occur among its characters.

In this southern gothic, almost stagey affair, the story is almost incidental: An old dowager's death leads to a comedy of errors in a small Mississippi town.

When the aforementioned old lady (Patricia Neal) lies dead in her big sprawling mansion, the local sheriff (played by Ned Beatty) reluctantly imprisons Willis (Charles S. Dutton), her longtime friend and tenant. But the arrest, the sheriff assures his colleagues, is pro forma. There's no way the goodnatured Willis could have done such a thing to Cookie.

"What makes you so sure?" asks the cop dusting for fingerprints at the crime scene.

"Because I've fished with him," says Beatty.

The audience knows, practically from the beginning, the real circumstances of Cookie's death. Unable to bear separation from her dearly departed husband, Cookie has decided to claim a speedier ticket to their celestial reunion, with a little help from one of her former husband's guns and a feathery pillow to muffle the noise.

Willis , a devoted, imbibing soul who lives for netting catfish and sipping Wild Turkey bourbon, is the only conceivable suspect.

Only Cookie's conniving niece Camille (Glenn Close), aided by her dumbly obedient sister Cora (Julianne Moore), can assert his innocence. Unfortunately, Camille's melodramatic, scheming agenda – to receive Cookie's fortune – precludes telling the truth.

In the meantime, the sheriff and Willis are quite content to play Scrabble in the local cell until the truth comes to light, as surely it must.

The story is compounded by the arrival of Emma (Liv Tyler), Cora's prodigal daughter, who returns after a long absence, takes up with a rookie cop and old flame (Chris O'Donnell) and demonstrates her outrage at Willis's imprisonment by moving into the cell with him.

It's an odd way to note success, and I'll sound like a crank for saying it, but Altman's success comes from keeping bad habits in check. (We're talking about the same filmmaker whose great satirical joke in "Ready to Wear" was that the fancy, the pretentious and the rich are equally liable to step in dog poop in the streets of Paris.) He's also helped considerably by Anne Rapp's narratively rounded screenplay, which brings things to bear and allows its characters some breathing space.

By reducing his passion for actorly preciousness, Western Union symbolism and klutzy metaphor, Altman functions instead as a good manager of a decently written product. And he adheres sensibly to the filmmaking style that has served him for decades: introduce the actors to this moss-covered, indolent world, then leave them to sort things out in time for the ending. It's a simple formula but it works fine, even in the sleepiest of situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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