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'Cookie's Fortune,' a Mystery Told With a Warm Southern Drawl

By Stephen Hunter
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
Mild suggestions of violence and vice
Well, sir, "Cookie's Fortune" is not in any hurry at all. It's on a walk, not in a race. Now and then it stops and comes up with a good one, and then it moseys on along.

In his old age, the great director Robert Altman seems to be saying, "Folks, what's all this hubbub about? We don't have much time on the planet. Let's enjoy it while we're here."

The movie might be called a Southern-comic-Gothic-small-town mystery story, with apologies to Eudora Welty, Harper Lee and the bossman himself, William Faulkner. Altman seems to have forgotten all about those other movies he directed, like "M*A*S*H" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville" and "The Player" and "Short Cuts." Those movies seemed to shout at you; this one arrives in a storyteller's merry warmth, as if it's being told on the porch in front of a big house, amid a group of older folks who have shared their lives. There might be some Tennessee sipping whiskey involved. It is cut to what might be called Southern rhythms. It's a movie that is somehow filmed in a drawl.

I don't expect you New York people to like it much. Nor you Coastal types. You all are used to the fast kind of movie-making, where every second you're in a new scene and you've got some kind of new spectacle to look at. You all expect big explosions, naked ladies and heroes with knobby cheekbones, that kind of material. Nope. Won't find a bit of that in "Cookie's Fortune," which is the story of how Miss Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt, of Holly Springs, Mississippi, joined her husband in Heaven and passed her fortune along to her most deserving relative.

Miss Jewel Mae (Patricia Neal) is a proud old woman, publicly stoic in the fashion of her definition of Dixie womanhood, not much for grieving when others are around to see it. But her grief is intense and agonizing; she misses her husband, Buck, mightily. One night, having made all the preparations, she takes a gun from her husband's gun cabinet, and fires a shot into her head. Even this simple act is cause for some of Altman's almost effortless magic: Out of consideration to her neighbors, she muffles the pistol shot through a pillow, and the pillow explodes in a heavenly mist of feathers floating down over everything, a detail that seems to attest to God's approval of Cookie's plan, as if the angels are strewing rose petals in her path as she rushes to greet Buck.

But Cookie's estranged niece Camille (Glenn Close) has other plans. Camille is the sort people would call high-strung. She always has to be in control. She was appointed Grandest Lady of Holly Springs, though no one can remember when or by whom, and as such she has certain beliefs and they are not to be fidgeted with. One is that certain classes of people cannot commit suicide. It just isn't done. So when she and her dim sister, Cora (Julianne Moore, her face perpetually slack to suggest that for her, life is a baffling fog), encounter the body, they decide to disguise the suicide as a murder.

It seems also that Camille has a creative flair – she's directing the church players in a production of "Salome," which she wrote with a Mr. Oscar Wilde, an Irish fellow, I believe – and so she gums up the crime scene to suggest that someone else did the shooting. It's her grandest performance.

Problem is: There is only one someone else. That is Willis Richland (Charles Dutton), Cookie's gardener, shopper and helping hand, a universally beloved man for his quiet decency and good humor. Willis is swiftly arrested by the police on the principle that he is available and no one much knows what else to do. This troubles Camille not a bit; she can't be bothered, because the family name is at stake. But it troubles nearly everyone in town, including Cora's estranged daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), who lives in a van outside the catfish plant, and police chief Billy Cox (Danny Darst, once a SWAT-team commander in "The Silence of the Lambs"), and particularly deputy Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty). Lester knows Willis couldn't have done it, because he's been fishing with him and he believes there is no truer X-ray of a man's soul than when he holds a rod in his hand by a quiet pond.

"Cookie's Fortune" seems to go sideways as often as it goes forward. Altman can't help noticing things more interesting than the story, such as the peculiar twilight quality of light in a Southern town, or the stillness in such a place, giving it an almost paradisiacal quality. Nothing's happening; that's what he likes about it, that being a position he has well earned the right to take, even if it meets with the disapproval of those under their 30th meridian with their eagerness to get on with things.

He doesn't even bother to start up the story for the first 20 minutes, during which he does a leisurely job of setting things up. Then he doesn't notice when the movie's over, for he is having such a good time he lets it go on about 20 minutes after it actually ends.

But his good time is infectious. The movie's full of deadpan little turns – Lyle Lovett has an odd little part as a catfish capitalist with a major-league crush on Emma – and comic riffs, such as the unquenchable attraction between Emma and junior cop Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell), and what those two do in the nook behind the Coke machine, well, I don't know, but I expect if you bought a Coke, when you opened it it would spray all over the place! He even conjures up a scene where Camille is caught with her hand in Cookie's cookie jar!

"Cookie's Fortune" is a wise old man's film. It's your grandfather talking, and you know how smart grandfathers are. It's not harsh to anyone except hypocrites and phonies, and it sees the world as a place where there's room enough for all and it points out that we're all a lot more alike under the skin than our surface pigmentation might suggest. You should listen when older gentlemen so declare. They know a little something.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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