The highest crime in "Cookie's Fortune" comes in the form of a string of unpaid parking tickets. Make that the second-highest crime. Because when the elderly Cookie Orcutt (Patricia Neal) meets her reward midway through the film, her death is interpreted as a murder. Cookie's decadently crumbling house is suddenly awash in yellow police tape, thanks to the efficient work of police lieutenant Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty) and rookie Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell). And Cookie's family is thrown into something of a tizzy.
Her nieces, Camille and Cora (Glenn Close, Julianne Moore), must balance this turn of events with staging the annual Easter play at the Presbyterian Church (Camille, the touchy-feely martinet of a director, has chosen Oscar Wilde's "Salome"). And Cora's daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), late of Biloxi and now living in her car and working at a catfish business, must cope with the loss while ignoring her amorous boss (Lyle Lovett) and reuniting with the heat-packing, torch-carrying Jason.
Moving through this jumble of characters with Buddha-like equanimity is Willis (Charles S. Dutton), Cookie's devoted friend and house-mate, who coaxes Emma out of her car with promises of catfish enchiladas and a pull off his ever-present bottle of Wild Turkey.
"Cookie's Fortune" has been compared to the work of Flannery O'Connor and Tennessee Williams, and although Altman earns that company in his observant evocation of Holly Springs, the movie's sunny, easygoing demeanor finally disqualifies it as pure Southern Gothic. If Williams were to write such a sweet-natured tale, it might be called "Gradually Last Summer" or "The Plexiglas Menagerie."
This isn't to say that "Cookie's Fortune" isn't authentic, because Altman's affinity for the South informs every moment of the film, from the juke joint where none other than Rufus Thomas is the proprietor, to the catfish houses, to the bluesy score composed by David Stewart (the only nod to Holly Springs' hallowed status as the home of such blues legends as Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside).
Altman, best known for such sprawling ensemble works as "Nashville," and more recently "Short Cuts" and "The Player," has once again assembled a stellar group of actors to portray this lovable gaggle of eccentrics. Dutton especially infuses the even-keeled Willis with terrific warmth and depth. And Moore is good as the dotty Cora, whom she plays with a buttoned-up mouth and wan passivity (at least until she dons Salome's seven veils; then, watch out).
If Close's overacting and Lovett's gratuitous appearance are distractions, they don't detract from the satisfactions of "Cookie's Fortune," which are many and, thankfully, quite simple. Adhering to the principles of good stories, strong characters and a keen eye, Altman has once again spun an absorbing glimpse of a world only he could bring to this kind of life.
Starring Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Charles S. Dutton, Patricia Neal
Directed by Robert Altman
Released by October Films
Rated PG-13 (depiction of a violent act, sensuality)
Running time: 118 minutes
Sun score: * * *
Pub Date: 4/09/99