Cookie’s Fortune

Holly Springs, Mississippi is one of those quaint, quiet antebellum towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s a rare little corner of the world where racism and the pace of the big city never raise their ugly heads.

It’s here where director Robert Altman has chosen to tell his latest story, a fresh, funny and very southern comedy about one family’s dark secrets that surface after the matriarch commits suicide.

Like Altman’s best films, “Cookie’s Fortune” is an ensemble piece that bristles with sharp, witty dialogue and believable, fine-tuned performances. Unlike some films, where you never for a moment believe that a connection exists between the characters, the actors in “Cookie’s Fortune” make us believe that these folks have lived in the same town all their lives.

That connection is important, because some of the events in Anne Rapp’s screenplay are going to ask us to take a tremendous leap of faith, and it’s the conviction of the actors that makes that leap successful. It’s easy to see what attracted Altman to Rapp’s screenplay. It’s filled with interesting characters who say and do interesting things, a comical subplot about murder, and a sweet southern charm that comes on as strong as molasses.

Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt is one of those great old southern dames, a feisty spirit who understands that old sage is robbing her of all of the things she loves most, including her deceased husband.

As portrayed by Patricia Neal, Cookie is the kind of woman most people would treasure as their grandmother. Too bad her controlling niece Camille doesn’t see those qualities. Camille only sees an eccentric old lady, someone to avoid at all costs.

That attitude deeply disturbs Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), Cookie’s lifelong friend who lives in an attachment on her house. Willis is Cookie’s best friend, a terrific sparring partner who takes care of her and her property.

Glenn Close is wonderful as Camille, a woman so anal retentive and community conscious that when Cookie commits suicide, Camille covers it up to look like a break-in and murder. She even swallows Cookie’s suicide note, a decision that will come back to haunt her later.

Camille then convinces her dimwit sister Cora (a delightfully daft Julianne Moore, playing against type) to lie for her, yet another decision that will backfire when the local police begin their investigation.

Even though everyone in town knows that he didn’t do it, the police’s first and only suspect is Willis, whose fingerprints were found on the gun. The police are so sure that Willis didn’t do it that they leave his cell open, and allow visitors to spend the night (shades of Mayberry).

It’s only when big city detective Otis Tucker (Courtney B. Vance) enters the investigation that everything begins to spiral out of control. Like “The Player,” things in “Cookie’s Fortune” get worse before they get better.

It’s always fun watching desperate people doing desperate things, and “Cookie’s Fortune” is filled with them.

As the film opens, Altman and Rapp introduce us to all of the characters, and it’s here where Altman displays his talent for creating time and place. With the simplest of suggestions, the filmmaker’s establish each character and their place in this small universe.

We see Willis leaving a blues bar when he accidentally drops his half-pint of Old Turkey, breaking it. He then heads back into the bar, where he sneaks out another half-pint. All of this would seem amoral, but when the even is played out and comes full circle, it’s all part of a ritual that makes these people unique.

When we first meet Camille, she’s preparing for her latest church play, a production of Salome. To understand her controlling nature, one only has to take a look at the sign out front: Salome by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon). Camille takes great pleasure in controlling all aspects of the production, including the life of her meek sister Cora, whom she shares a house with.

On stage is half the town, including young, handsome Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Brown (a winning Chris O’Donnell), who is still smarting from his flighty romance with Cora’s daughter Emma (Liv Tyler, lovely as always), who left town unexpectedly.

Unbeknownst to Jason, Emma is back in town, living in her van by the railroad tracks, and working at a fish packing plant run by Manny Hood (Lyle Lovett). Manny is so lovelorn for Emma that he even furnishes an old train caboose for her to live in.

There isn’t a bad performance in the film. Close is so wicked and calculated as Camille, you’re tempted to reach out and smack her. Moore is such a delight as Cora, the only character to experience growth over the course of the film. When she finally blossoms, it’s a beautiful moment.

Dutton is the real star of “Cookie’s Fortune.” When he learns of Cookie’s fate, you feel his heartbreak and sadness. I’ve always liked Dutton, but he excels here. There’s a lot to admire about “Cookie’s Fortune.” It comes with little fanfare, but it stays with you long after it’s over.



Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Charles S. Dutton, Patricia Neal, Liv Tyler, Chris O’Donnell, Ned Beatty, Lyle Lovett, Donald Moffat, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash in a film directed by Robert Altman. Rated PG-13. 118 Minutes


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