Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Rich Fortune

By Mark Jordan

APRIL 12, 1999:  The few hundred people packed into Rust College’s Doxey Auditorium were supposed to be there to see a movie, but a great many of the Holly Springs residents were actually there to see themselves.

For several weeks last year, the quiet, picturesque North Mississippi town hosted an independent film crew headed up by esteemed director Robert Altman, the creative force behind such films as M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts. The Holly Springers had watched the film crew take over their streets, homes, and back alleys. Some had even found themselves working on the picture. Now, at long last, they were going to get to see the fruit of all that work. And since Holly Springs has no movie theatre (the nearest one is in Southaven), last weekend’s special screening was going to be the only time to see the movie in which Holly Springs itself seems to play a character in Holly Springs.

“Sit back and don’t look for Uncle George or your neighbor’s house,” said producer David Levy, who accompanied screenwriter and former Mississippian Anne Rapp and co-stars Rufus Thomas and Ruby Wilson. “You can do that the second, third, or 18th time you see it. Just watch. This is your film, Holly Springs. You deserve it.”

Indeed, what the residents of Holly Springs got was a loving thank-you in the form a funny Southern charmer of a film. Set (like the premiere last weekend) over an Easter weekend, the film revolves around the extended family of Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt (tenderly portrayed by Patricia Neal in a rare screen appearance) – her nieces Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), a domineering self-possessed woman who thinks nothing of giving herself co-author billing for directing the church’s holiday production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and the seemingly “touched” Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore); Cora’s estranged daughter Emma (Liv Tyler), the town’s “criminal” with some $200 in parking tickets; and Cookie’s best friend, Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), who lives in the back house and helps take care of Cookie.

With no shortage of friends and family, Cookie nevertheless spends her private moments pining for her late husband, the rakish Buck Orcutt, until Cookie decides to join Buck by taking her own life. That decision sets in motion a series of events that unravels not like a piece of Southern gothic, as promotional material for the film would have you believe, but like a screwball comedy from the ’30s, such as Bringing Up Baby or Ball Of Fire.

It’s hard to know what to think of this latest turn in Altman’s work. Cookie’s Fortune seems to continue the Missouri-born director’s exploration of the Deep South. His last film was the truly gothic John Grisham-penned film noir The Gingerbread Man. Though radically different in tone, both that film and Cookie’s Fortune share a rich sense of place and a fascination with family dysfunction and long-hidden secrets.

The difference is that tone thing. The Gingerbread Man relayed its themes with the cynicism and dark humor that have characterized such Altman films as M*A*S*H and Nashville. But Cookie’s Fortune stands out from the rest of the Altman oeuvre. It is a sweet, lightweight film. “It’s like a cold beer on a sweltering summer day,” said Levy, quoting an early review of the picture.

The finely etched universe of Cookie’s Fortune – a combination of The Andy Griffith Show and To Kill A Mockingbird – is populated with characters who are not always endearing but certainly not villainous. In its benign playfulness, the film more closely resembles that other Altman curio, the bizarrely brilliant comic-book musical Popeye.

Rapp’s screenplay dredges up many of the tried-and-true cliches of Southern literature, most notably the theme of the wrongfully accused black man whom the folksy local deputy, played by Ned Beatty, knows is innocent because “I’ve fished with the man.” In addition, Rapp sometimes mistakes eccentric behavior for well-drawn characters. One wishes she had listened to her own pen when she has Cora, who is starring as Salome in sister Camille’s production, ask, “What is motivation?” It is something some of these characters, especially Tyler’s Emma, are sorely missing.

And while the comedy is sometimes no more original than the plot contrivances, the high-caliber cast – which also includes Chris O’Donnell as a bumbling rookie deputy and Emma’s love interest, Courtney B. Vance as a no-nonsense investigator from Batesville, veteran character actor Donald Moffat as the only lawyer in town, and singer Lyle Lovett as Emma’s lecherous boss – present the material so honestly and heart-feltly that you – like the residents of Holly Springs, like you imagine anyone in the presence of Buck Orcutt would be – find yourself completely and uncontrollably charmed.

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