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With: Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Charles S. Dutton, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Courtney B. Vance, Lyle Lovett
Written by: Anne Rapp
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for the depiction of a violent act, and for sensuality
Running Time: 118
Date: 01/22/1999

Cookie's Fortune (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Small Town Killer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Legendary director Robert Altman gives us a crime movie that somehow makes an old story seem fresh and funny with Cookie's Fortune. Patricia Neal -- famous for her roles in A Face in the Crowd, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Hud -- stars as Cookie, an elderly matriarch who lives alone in a big house in Mississippi. She has some family; her nieces Camille (Glenn Close) and Cora (Julianne Moore), whom she doesn't like, and a great-niece, Emma (Liv Tyler) who is a wild drifter (a female drifter for once!). Cookie is taken care of by Willis (Charles S. Dutton), who was close to her late husband, Buck.

Cookie's mind begins to drift a little (as happens to most elderly characters in movies), and she decides one afternoon, just before Easter, to shoot herself so that she can join Buck in the afterlife. Camille shows up just then and, afraid of a scandal, makes the suicide look like a murder. A good deal of the "evidence" unfortunately points to poor Willis, who goes to jail (even though the door is never locked). The local cops, Lester (Ned Beatty) and Jason (Chris O'Donnell), aided by a big-city investigator Otis (Courtney B. Vance) try to figure out what really happened. Meanwhile, Camille is busy putting on an Easter production of Oscar Wilde's Salome at the church, with nearly everyone in town in the cast.

The best thing about Cookie's Fortune is that Altman is not really interested in the crime story. He's is interested in watching these small town folks work together in a time of crisis. Fishing is a science and a religion here. Lester knows that Willis is innocent because, "I've fished with him." There's a little romance between Emma and Jason, and catfish farm manager Manny (Lyle Lovett) secretly pines away for Emma. The whole town knows about Willis' penchant for Wild Turkey whiskey and pretends not to know. Everyone knows everyone and everyone respects everyone. It's a wonderful, warm portrait of a small town and its inner mechanics. The movie lapses a little bit with some of its characters, like Camille, Jason, and Cora, who are all just a little too clueless. Fortunately, competent acting and tight direction smooth out these wrinkles.

Cookie's Fortune is the first script by Anne Rapp -- who had been a successful producer (Tender Mercies, Local Hero, and This Is Spinal Tap, among others) -- and it's a fine work. I want to call attention to the work of Charles S. Dutton for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Dutton is a marvelous Teddy Bear who waddles around and is as comfortable sitting at the table with Cookie as he is fishing with Lester. His heart is so big you want to spend more time with him after the movie is over. Liv Tyler is also wonderful in her role; she is loose, sexy, and confident. And Glenn Close gets to reprise her venomous Cruella DeVille villainy to a small extent.

Cookie's Fortune is another fine movie in the long and impressive canon of Robert Altman, who likes to get inside a genre, turn it inside out, and look at it backwards and from above. After 40-odd years with his unconventional, detached, observing style, he moves in for a closer, more intimate look with this one. Cookie's Fortune is a wonderful movie.

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