MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Glenn Close (Camille Orcutt), Julianne Moore (Cora Duvall), Liv Tyler (Emma Duvall), Chris O'Donnell (Jason Brown), Charles Dutton (Willis Richland), Patricia Neal (Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt), Ned Beatty (Lester Boyle), Courtney B. Vance (Otis Tucker), Donald Moffat (Jack Palmer), Lyle Lovett (Manny Hood)
"You know how come I know he didn't do it?" says Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty), a deputy police officer in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the small town turned upside down at the heart of Robert Altman's new film, "Cookie's Fortune." "Because I fished with him." That's the kind of town Holly Springs is--the kind where a police officer can defend his friend against murder charges, even though there's piling evidence against him, because they've been fishing together. In fact, Lester is so sure that his friend, Willis (Charles Dutton), is innocent, that he drinks Dr Pepper and plays Scrabble with Willis and his lawyer, Jack (Donald Moffat), with the cell door wide open.
Of course, Holly Springs is also the kind of small, Southern town that produces people like Camille Orcutt (Glenn Close), a self-righteous, hypocritical, spinster busybody whose overzealous desire to avoid family disgrace is what puts Willis in jail in the first place. Camille simply cannot stand the fact that her dotty old aunt, Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal), committed suicide by shooting herself in the head. "This is just disgraceful," Camille bemoans when she finds the body. She convinces her slow-witted sister, Cora (Julianne Moore), to help her disguise the suicide to look like a murder, which is, of course, the exact opposite of the usual scenario in a murder mystery.
In fact, director Robert Altman, an expert at turning genres inside-out, and first-time screenwriter Anne Rapp, put the Southern fried murder-mystery on its head by reversing the situation (making suicide look like murder) and then letting the audience in on all the information. Because we have all the information, the enjoyment in watching the film isn't in finding out new details to solve a mystery, but rather in watching others find out what we already know. It's a God's eye point-of-view that often doesn't work because having all the answers in advance can drain the picture of its intensity, but somehow Altman manages to pick up most of the slack with eccentric characters and dark, farcical humor.
It's unfortunate that Cookie has to commit suicide in the first half-hour, because she's one of the film's most memorable characters. As played by Patricia Neal, she's a funny old bat who smokes a pipe and keeps all her deceased husband's guns in a glass case in the foyer, and she can tell you where he got each and every one of them. Willis, her caretaker, is a good-hearted man, a friend of the family who has been given the duty of watching out for Cookie in her old age. He's not exactly perfect--he has a bad tendency of taking pints of Wild Turkey from the local bar late at night. But, at the same time, he's the kind of man who will slip in the next morning and return a full bottle. Overall, he's a good soul who almost pays the ultimate price for Camille's sanctimony.
The characters in "Cookie's Fortune" seem to fit into one of three categories: nice, dumb, and odious. Counted among the nice are Willis, Jack, Lester, and Emma (Liv Tyler), the bad girl with a good heart who has just returned to town. Among the dumb are Julianne Moore's wide-eyed Cora and Jason (Chris O'Donnell), a clueless but genial new police deputy who thinks there's such a blood type as ABC-negative. All of these characters are interesting to varying degrees, but none are particularly memorable. In the end, it is Glenn Close who cuts the most striking figure as Camille, probably because she is the one character who fits into the odious category.
Presiding over the local church production of "Salome" (which she had to adapt from Oscar Wilde's original, since Wilde's writing ability wasn't quite up to her standards), Camille flutters about on her own cushion of air, oh-so-far above everyone else. She's so absorbed in herself (and intent on getting Cookie's fortune) that she can't resist rearranging Cookie's belongings as if they were her own, never mind that she's casually destroying the integrity of the crime scene and possibly condemning an innocent man to life in jail. In some ways, the whole film seems to be designed to get at her, to land her in jail and punish her fake religious piety and innate selfishness.
The story is really terribly uncomplicated, and Altman fills in the gaps with Southern flavored blues guitar twanging on the soundtrack and interesting, sometimes humorous regional characterizations. As Altman has always been one of the masters of texture and atmosphere, most of the time it's enough; but, especially when compared to some of his earlier work like "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), "Nashville" (1975), and even last year's "The Gingerbread Man," the film as a whole feels just slightly underdone.
©1999 James Kendrick