Cookie's Fortune (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Cookie's Fortune deserves to be appreciated on its own terms. A less-ambitious outing from veteran director Robert Altman (at least when compared to movies like Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts), this movie delivers agreeable performances and a charming, amusing story that offers little in the way of substance. Those who have identified some of Altman's previous fare as too idiosyncratic or even unfathomable (I know a few people who didn't "get" The Player) may find Cookie's Fortune to be more to their liking. It's not in any way a challenging or difficult film, and watching it affords the opportunity to enjoy numerous minor pleasures.

The movie is set in the deep South. Actually, let me amend that - it's set is a world that is a gentle caricature of the deep South, a place which is manufactured from a combination of reality and the outsider's preconceptions. Take the atmosphere from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, add a dose of comic exaggeration, shake everything up, and you get Holly Spring, Mississippi. The result may remind some viewers of the setting devised by the Coen Brothers for Fargo - an off-center habitat where all sorts of unusual events can transpire. In both films, people adhere to quaint customs and traditions. Here, for example, the way to get the true pulse of a friend or neighbor is to go fishing with them.

As is often Altman's method, Cookie's Fortune was developed as an ensemble piece. No character or performance steals the show, although one comes close (Glenn Close, that is). The title character, played by Patricia Neal, is a Southern matriarch in her waning years. She's an odd but likable old lady who has an easy rapport with her close friend, confidante, and odd-jobs man, Willis (Charles S. Dutton). Willis is basically an honest, hard-working fellow who's perhaps a little too fond of alcohol - on those occasions when he doesn't have enough money to pay for a bottle of Wild Turkey, he's not beyond swiping one from behind the counter at the local bar, but, when he's financially solvent again, he always sneaks back a replacement. In addition to being fond of Willis, Cookie has a soft spot in her heart for Emma (Liv Tyler), the young daughter of her dim, gullible niece, Cora (Julianne Moore). Cookie also has another niece, the intolerant, image-conscious Camille (Glenn Close), who thinks of herself as the most important person in Holly Spring. She orders people around in real life the same way she does on stage while directing a church sponsored production of "Salome."

After spending some time introducing the characters and defining their relationships, Cookie's Fortune shifts into high gear with a change in tone. While the early portions of the film set us up for a lighthearted melodrama, Altman eventually guides his picture into the realm of farce and dark comedy. Despondent about her failing health, Cookie resolves to take her own life. When Camille finds the body, she decides to fake a burglary and murder, because "suicide is undignified." After eating Cookie's suicide note, she enlists Cora's aid in concocting a complicated cover-up that fools the local police. It actually works too well, however, and there is enough "evidence" for the cops to arrest Willis for murder. No one actually believes he did it - least of all the arresting officers - but they have a duty to do. And, while this development shocks Camille, it doesn't prompt her to change her plans. She will not allow the family's reputation to be tarnished by revealing the truth about Cookie's demise.

The result of all this is a madcap plot that involves jailhouse trysts, paternity revelations, and all sorts of other intrigue. With a sly, clever script (by Anne Rapp) that consistently ratchets up the comic momentum and even throws in a little genuine suspense, Cookie's Fortune builds to a delightfully funny climax. Some of the best moments are provided by small, aside jokes, such as when one character literally gets caught with her hand in the cookie jar. For pure jocularity, this is Altman's most successful effort in years. Even The Player, with its brutal, take-no-prisoners attitude, didn't offer as many hearty laughs. And, while Cookie's Fortune never devolves to the level of mindless comedy offered by the many lowbrow films populating multiplex screens, this isn't intellectual humor, either. It's entirely accessible to anyone willing to invest two hours.

The cast is solid, with the actors sliding into parts that don't require more from them than they're capable of comfortably giving. For Camille, Glenn Close adds a healthy dose of Blanche Dubois to her Dangerous Liaisons persona, resulting in a character whose arrogance makes her primed for a fall. As Cora, Julianne Moore radiates meekness and naiveté. Charles S. Dutton is stable and affable as Willis; he becomes the character we root for. Liv Tyler and Chris O'Donnell (playing her beau, a dashing-but-bumbling cop), both known more for looks than ability, are given light parts that don't tax their limited thespian talents. Supporting performers include Ned Beatty and Courtney B. Vance.

Those in search of a fresh Altman classic will be disappointed. Cookie's Fortune stands below the director's best work - it lacks the bite of The Player and the scope of his ensemble pictures - but, as a source of light pleasure and solid laughs, it delivers. This particular cookie may not fill the belly, but it goes down easy.

Cookie's Fortune (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 1999-04-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1