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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 24, 1989


Susan Seidelman
Emily Lloyd;
Peter Falk;
Dianne Wiest;
Jerry Lewis;
Michael Gazzo;
Brenda Vaccaro;
Adrian Pasdar
its language

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In Susan Seidelman's "Cookie," Emily Lloyd has world-class attitude. As the eponymous heroine, Cookie Volteckie, she pouts with the best of them. Her disaffected teen slouches are gargantuan, her eyeball rolls epic. Nobody slams a refrigerator door or slugs chocolate milk straight out of the carton like she does.

Directed by Seidelman from a script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, the movie itself is ingratiating piffle. It's a mafia spoof, a sort of tarantella with a cast of lively Italianos -- bouncy, colorful and insubstantial.

Lloyd is the star attraction here, and though the performance she gives here isn't as fully realized as her debut in "Wish You Were Here" -- the script doesn't allow for it -- from moment to moment she shows that she is a vivacious, impish comedian with crack timing and a natural performer's flair for giving pleasure.

This is a fearlessly charismatic young actress. There's excitement in how she handles even the smallest bit of business, and watching her in the movie's early scenes, you can't wait to see what she'll do next. Dressed in her pop-collaged black leather jacket, she is parodic and outrageously cartoony without being over the top. The illegitimate daughter of Dino (Peter Falk), a jailed mafia don, Cookie is afraid of nothing and bored by everything. She's not an innocent, she's a hellion, and her boredom isn't passive or demure. She broadcasts it at full volume, with a mouth on her like you wouldn't believe.

The film's plot is as intricate as it is inconsequential. The glory -- what there is of it -- is in the marginal details. Seidelman always finds room for the telling eccentricity, like the delicate way the mobsters drink their espresso or waddle, straight-backed, in their bulky topcoats.

The central joke is that everyone except his own daughter sees Dino as a powerful man to be feared and respected. Almost all the characters are affectionate sendups, either of other performers or of other characters. As Dino, Falk is like Brando's Godfather sprinkled with fairy dust. Falk plays Dino as a commanding, self-possessed figure and, trying to reclaim the money owed him by his partner, Carmine (Michael V. Gazzo), he's a shrewd, if impulsive, tactician.

The cast as a whole is seasoned and wily. In a performance that is a sly reprise of his own character of Frankie Pentagelli in the second "Godfather" film, Gazzo is the most phlegmatic of mobsters; it's only after Dino usurps the table at his favorite restaurant that he orders a hit on his old partner. And the souls of all those Rat Pack girls Shirley MacLaine used to play seem to have collided in Dianne Wiest's Lenore. Dino is married to a pet-loving loon named Bunny (Brenda Vaccaro), but Lenore is the love of his life and the mother of his daughter. The character is nothing but gas, but Wiest, crinkling her eyes under her bulging bouffants, turns her dreams of a happy, normal family life into pixilated comedy. Just watching her spray the living room with air freshener is a delight.

Ephron is better at writing joke lines than she is at writing characters, but that seems like less of a liability here than in either "When Harry Met Sally ..." or "Heartburn," mostly because in a comedy of this sort, fully articulated characters aren't required. Plus, working with Arlen, she has written some pretty terrific lines.

The director and her writers aren't well matched -- their strengths and weaknesses are identical. Seidelman's approach is to turn tacky, middle-class kitsch -- beaded curtains, dolphin lamps, gold lame' drapes -- into a form of knowing cool. The vision is not an original one, and the echoes of other movies, particularly Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob," are everywhere. In almost all the important areas, Seidelman is undistinguished, but her films are infectiously stylish, like pop tunes -- they stick in your head. They're all surface, though, and her characters don't build or grow. As "Cookie" zips along, it comes across as a likable but rather attenuated sketch. You can't help feeling that for all its charm, it's a little too thinly stretched.

"Cookie" is rated R, probably for its language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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