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Altman elevates lame story with wonderful details in "Cookie's Fortune"

By Jim Ridley

APRIL 12, 1999:  The Gingerbread Man, Robert Altman's last film, was an overbaked mess, a John Grisham potboiler hashed together from the leftovers of other thrillers. With its bad-news babes, family secrets, and goof-noir plot twists, the script heaved in everything but the kitchen sink, and for its climax--a celebrity death match between Kenneth Branagh and Tom Berenger in the path of a hurricane--it threw in the garbage disposal too. What you took away from the movie wasn't the big dumb story but the doodles around its edge: some neat peripheral performances (by Daryl Hannah, Robert Duvall, et al.), the easy banter between Branagh and buddy Robert Downey Jr., and especially the director's evocation of Savannah as a place where people actually raise kids, conduct business, eat food, and live--unlike the Gray Line tour of the city Clint Eastwood gave in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The point isn't that Altman is some wild-ass maverick who can't sell out: That old bromide should've been laid to rest with O.C. and Stiggs. Instead, it's that Altman has a gift for illuminating the nooks and crannies that go unexplored in otherwise worn-out commercial genre assignments. Give him a gunfighter movie or a detective flick, and you can end up with something as sharp and singular as McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye--movies a lot more interesting for their sense of place and community than for any shoot-outs or flatfoot work.

Altman's new comedy, Cookie's Fortune, isn't in the same league with those earlier movies; it's closer in intent and execution to his long '80s period of stage adaptations, where he found some grit in scripts as weak as Come Back to the Five-and-Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. But it does show the director's knack for building an engaging milieu on a foundation of pure hokum. The latest Southern Gothic comedy to follow the trail blazed by Crimes of the Heart--lovable eccentrics, funny names, whiffs of illicit sex and death among the potpourri--Cookie's Fortune would be too cute for words if not for Altman's fluid, attentive direction and some seamless ensemble work.

The opening scenes lay out the movie's setting, Holly Springs, Miss., with neat geographic precision: After gentle tippler Willis (Charles S. Dutton) leaves the local roadhouse, he passes the railroad tracks, the catfish depot, and the First Presbyterian Church before reaching the home of Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (Patricia Neal). Willis is Cookie's caretaker and sole companion, but he can't fill the hole in her life left by the death of her husband Buck. (A carefully posed shot of Neal saying goodbye softly from her window is the movie's most haunting image.) The next day, while Willis is out running errands, Cookie slips off upstairs and places one of Buck's prized pistols to her head. But the body is found by Cookie's crackpot daughter, upright Camille (Glenn Close), who decides no member of her family will do something as screwy as killing herself. So Camille eats the suicide note, and while her mousy sister Cora (Julianne Moore) watches, she sets about turning Cookie's deathbed into an ersatz crime scene.

Anne Rapp's script digs up small-town Southern clichés and folksy conceits you haven't seen since Mayberry switched to color. Bumbling cops! Uptight church ladies! A wacky religious pageant full of locals who can't act! So help me, there's even a drinker who gets comfy treatment and home-cooked meals in the hoosegow, and not one but two Barney Fifes. Some of this Altman hokes up even further--the clumsy trysts between hot-blooded rookie Chris O'Donnell and Cora's bad-girl daughter Liv Tyler belong in a Dukes of Hazzard rerun. Even at its most entertaining, none of this is particularly believable. When a black man is about to get railroaded on murder charges in rural Mississippi, does anybody outside the film crew think he'd treat it as a minor inconvenience?

And yet the movie as a whole is brightened by the skilled cast, and by the director's flair for overlapping dialogue and offhand conversations--as in Willis' jailhouse Scrabble games with his lawyer (Donald Moffat) and his fishing-buddy, who also happens to be the town deputy (Ned Beatty). A sorghum crawl at the beginning, Altman's relaxed pacing nevertheless allows the actors to set the town's pulse--which seems sleepy to outsiders but frantic to locals--and to pick up on each other's rhythms. When the action shifts to the roadhouse, and you get a full-on collision of Beatty's quiet scorn, investigator Courtney B. Vance's slow burn, Rufus Thomas' hot-plate temper, and "forensics expert" Matt Malloy's fidgety earnestness, the clash of acting styles gets laughs that aren't in the obvious lines.

As in McCabe's elegiac Western outpost or the hyperbolic cartoon universe Altman populated for Popeye, our eyes are always drawn to the peripheral details of Altman's well-stocked world: to Lyle Lovett's squirrelly catfish seller; to the sneaky way Dutton filches a bottle of booze in plain view; to the weird little conversations Beatty and sheriff Danny Darst never quite finish in their cruiser. Had Cookie's Fortune pounded home its easiest laughs, the way a corn pone Hollywood horror like Steel Magnolias does, it would've lost what charm it has.

Altman can't always elevate lackluster material: At worst, as in Pret-a-Porter, his indulgence doesn't create a world so much as an actors' gated community. He can, however, take a routine piece of stagecraft and suggest that a world exists outside the narrow confines of its story. Here, the cumulative byplay of the cast and the particulars of each performance say a lot more about life in the movie's Holly Springs than the silly sitcom plotting does. There's more nourishment in the crumbs of Cookie's Fortune than in the meal itself.

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