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COOKIE'S FORTUNE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O’Donnell, Charles S. Dutton, Patricia Neal
Director:  Robert Altman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  USA Home Entertainment
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Audio Commentary, Cast and Crew Info
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  November 16, 1999

Film ****

One of the many running bits of humor throughout Cookie’s Fortune is an Easter play being produced by the First Presbyterian Church of Holly Springs…Oscar Wilde’s Salome.  Or, as it is billed, “by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon”.  That earned a big laugh from me, as did the whole notion of this strange and not-very-religious play being used for an Easter service.

The world of Robert Altman’s little southern town is eccentric, but not so much so that the quirkiness is the only thing you notice.  The eccentricity is not the point of the film, nor the characters.  It merely exists, and breathes freely, in the type of rural setting where you can dial a wrong number and still talk for twenty minutes.  As usual for Altman, he tackles a large array of interesting characters, and of course, he finds no limit to the talent willing to work for him to secure his vision.

Heading the cast is Charles S. Dutton as Willis, a kindly man who has looked after the town’s matriarch-of-sorts, Cookie (Neal).  Their moments together are warm, funny, sweet, and touching.  Cookie has family, but not much of a relationship with them.  There are her two nieces, Camille (Close) and Cora (Moore), and her great niece Emma (Tyler), an on again, off again criminal who’s just made it back into town.  Cora is slow, and doesn’t seem to know much of anything going on around her except what’s told her by Camille, who’s a bit self centered and self righteous as the director and producer of the church play (the one she co-wrote with Mr. Wilde).

The structure of the movie reminds me of the flip side of Fargo, in a way.  That picture was about a seemingly simple crime growing more and more out of control.  Cookie’s Fortune is about the ripple effects of a criminal investigation in a tiny town…when there was no crime to begin with.

It works like this:  when Cookie commits suicide in order to finally be with her late husband, Camille discovers the body.  In an effort to save the family the embarrassment of a suicide, she makes it look like her aunt was murdered in a robbery, by removing the gun and snatching up a few valuables…though one can’t help but ponder watching Camille work if she’s maybe enjoying getting her hands on those items a little too much.  She even eats the suicide note left for Willis.

Anyway, she makes Cora swear not to tell anyone about the suicide.  Of course, this creates complications, as the local law enforcement now find themselves trying to solve a murder that never happened…and one gets the feeling these good old boys haven’t had to even do that sort of thing too much.  Another of the film’s amusing touches is the way they completely spider-web the house with that yellow crime scene tape…and then nobody in the film seems to pay any attention to it, walking or driving through it as they please.

Soon, based on the fingerprint evidence, the cops are forced to hold Willis for the crime, even though there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for his prints.  He lived there, after all.  And here’s where some of the amusing complications of being such a small town where everybody knows everybody else begin to come in to play.  Willis fishes with the sheriff and his deputies, and they of course, don’t believe he did it.  They put him in a cell, but the door never closes, once.  Which is all right, because he doesn’t try to go anywhere.  As the investigation unfolds, there are even gatherings for Scrabble in Willis’ cell.

Do things work out all right in the end?  Well, I won’t give anything away, but when you watch the last fifteen minutes or so of the movie, you might just think to yourself what I thought:  only in the south.

Robert Altman is an audacious filmmaker, with a body of work that is mostly interesting, even with some films that just flat out didn’t work.  Think of the long, unbroken opening shot of The Player and you’ve got a sense of what he’s capable of at his best.  Then again, watch the hopelessly befuddled Ready to Wear and you can see what happens when he lets style run amuck with no substance.  In Cookie’s Fortune, Altman has struck gold.  This is definitely one of, if not the best, movie he’s made.  Not only is his direction impeccable, but he has a near flawless and endlessly funny screenplay by Anne Rapp to draw from, and a perfect cast of actors.  Each brings just the right note to his or her role…in particular Dutton, who is a strong actor and deserves more such choice roles, and Neal, who may just garner an Oscar nomination for her sweet and touching work.

All of these allow Altman to create a film in his usual style, which is the methodical revelation, one layer at a time, of his characters’ relationships with one another.  This small town setting, and this script, and these characters are the perfect tools for him to create his unique vision, allowing the relationships to be at the heart of the picture while comedy remains the soul.

Video ***

I think this is my first experience with a DVD from USA Home Entertainment.  Quite a coup for them, landing the right to distribute one of the year’s best reviewed films.  Like Columbia, they’ve opted to offer both widescreen and standard versions of the film, but unlike them, there’s no anamorphic enhancement.  Still, the sunny southern settings translate well to DVD, with clean images, good coloring, no bleeding, and no noticeable grain…even in the few darker settings. 

Audio **

The soundtrack, though 5.1, is merely serviceable, but not remarkable.  I don't recall any real use of the surround speakers, nor the .1 subwoofer.  Easily understood, given the nature of the picture, which is mostly dialogue oriented.  The spoken words and music play very nicely and clearly on the forward stage, so no real complaints here.

Features ***

The disc contains a trailer, cast and crew bios, and a running commentary by Robert Altman, which was not as good as I would have hoped.  He delegates himself mostly to the role of telling you what you're seeing while you're seeing it.

Summary:

Cookie’s Fortune seemed to come and go rather quickly this year, but was around long enough to win the praise of many critics.  I certainly hope it’s not forgotten come Oscar time.  This is a funny, warm, and brilliantly executed movie by Robert Altman and company, and one I think would please most film lovers.