Cookie's Fortune (1999)
Directed by Robert Altman
Cast: Glenn Close, Charles S. Dutton, Liv Tyler, Julianne Moore, Chris O'Donnell, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Courtney B. Vance, Lyle Lovett, Matt Malloy, Donald Moffat.
1999 118 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and a suicide).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 11, 1999.
Since 1975's "Nashville," an American masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made, Robert Altman has proven that he is a world-class filmmaker. Although his career since then has been noticably uneven, he always manages to come out on top, and in the last decade has made several successful motion pictures, including "The Player," "Short Cuts," and even "The Gingerbread Man." His latest film, the southern-based dark comedy "Cookie's Fortune," which gained a lot of buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival, unfortunately falls into Altman's pile of disappointments (joining the likes of the inane "Ready to Wear"), and probably is his biggest misfire I've seen.
Set in the humble, little town of Holly Springs, Mississippi, Cookie (Patricia Neal) is an elderly and grieving widower who has several relatives nearby, none of which much seem to bother visiting her, and whose only actual friend is Willis (Charles S. Dutton), a kindly black man who lives with her to keep her company. Easter is quickly approaching, and when her two nieces, the kooky, determined Camille (Glenn Close), who is the director of the church's violent holiday play of "Salome," by Orson Welles, and the dim-witted, flaky Cora (Julianne Moore), drop by, they are horrified to discover Cookie dead in her upstairs bedroom, the victim of a suicide. Stating that suicide will not be permitted in their family, the quick-thinking Camille immediately brainwashes Cora into telling the police Cookie was murdered, and then goes about destroying evidence (she literally eats the suicide note) and setting up a "murder scene." Soon, however, the planted gun happens to contain the fingerprints of Willis, who is taken to the town's jail by the reluctant cops, who keep the cell door wide open and set up a game of Scrabble for him to play. Hearing word that her best buddy is in the slammer, Cora's tough 19-year-old daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), becomes Willis' jail partner, taking time out only to make out with her "iffy" cop boyfriend (Chris O'Donnell).
There are two many obvious problems in "Cookie's Fortune" to count, but many that can't be ignored. The ensemble cast that Altman has gotten for this film is truly exceptional, but (aside from Dutton and Tyler) every single one of them is burdened with an annoyingly one-note character that isn't given any chance to grow within the nearly eventless 2-hour running time. Amid all of the "charming" eccentricities, all signs of realistic or even human characteristics have been abandoned for blatant caricatures that quickly test the viewer's nerves. In a film in which the majority of characters are related in some way, there is no excuse for the amount of relationships that aren't the least bit explored, or even given one scene, particularly between mother and daughter Cora and Emma, who have all of one scene together and one line exchange. Similar and far superior films in the "Southern eccentricity" genre are 1989's "Miss Firecracker" and 1997's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." It's been at least a year since I've viewed both of these movies, but they are more fresh in my mind, and certainly more memorable, than "Cookie's Fortune" which, as I write this, I saw about an hour ago.
It's a shame, too, because the performances are the central saving grace (which isn't nearly enough to save any graces at all concerning this movie). Since Dutton and Tyler are given the two fully-realized roles in the piece, their performances easily stand out, making the most out of what is certainly a lackluster screenplay, by Anne Rapp. Julianne Moore is the most lovable character in the bunch, mostly because of her genuine naivety. Ultimately, she is turned into the main comic relief and is forced to stand at a distance from the material. Glenn Close also is fine here, but too off-beat by a half for us to get involved or care at all about her, even though, I suspect, she wasn't meant to be particularly likable. Chris O'Donnell sleepwalks through his first film in two years (since the disasterous "Batman and Robin"), but it isn't his fault that he pretty much is put in a corner with nothing to do but occasionally kiss Tyler. Courtney B. Vance shows up three-fourths of the way into the film as a crime investigator and comes off as nothing more than an afterthought, as does Lyle Lovett, as Tyler's boss and friend at her fish hatchery job.
By the time "Cookie's Fortune" reached its climax which, to say the least, leaves something to be desired, I was left with one nagging question: what was the point? The movie is rarely funny, straining for laughs that no doubt sounded better on paper than in actual film form; there is no human interest, or any sort of interest at all, in the story; and very little at all comes to satisfying closure. Unlike Altman's "Nashville" or "The Player," "Cookie's Fortune" has nothing at all to say about anything, hoping that utter wackiness will be enough to salvage the proceedings. It isn't. Not by a long shot.
©1999 by Dustin Putman