Cookie's Fortune
dir. Robert Altman
Opens Fri April 9 at the Meridian 16, Guild 45th

THE MISSISSIPPI TOWN OF HOLLY SPRINGS HAS A specificity uncommon in movies. It's a real community. In Cookie's Fortune, along with the historical markers and ante-bellum houses, Robert Altman perfectly captures the sunny laziness of the small park in the town square, the useless stoves left outside to rust, and the faded, dusty appearance of a sign advertising Manny's Fresh Catfish. Sure, it could be any small town--a few shots of alleys and backyards had me thinking of my late grandparents' home, half a continent away in Gonzales, California, and I'm sure you'll have plenty of your own references--but once people start gabbing on politely-but-obsessively about fishing or drinking or dead loved ones, you realize that however much this place looks like Holly Springs, we're really back once more in Altmanville, U.S.A.

For his 33rd picture, Robert Altman has taken a slight but enjoyable story by producer-turned-first-time-scriptwriter Anne Rapp and applied his familiar techniques of oblique angles, ragged narration, and busy ensemble casts. There is a difference this time out, however: an uncharacteristic ease in the transitions and a gentleness in the characterizations. Altman has officially been a Grand Old Man for a decade now, but it seems he has finally decided to live up to the title and relax a bit. This lighter mood takes hold, literally, from the opening credits. Late at night, he cuts back and forth among a patrolling police car, a rehearsal for a dreadful church performance of Salomé, a blues singer wailing in a juke joint, and a fellow drunkenly walking home through town, but without the acerbity you'd expect from a man who brought irony and tragedy to a montage of churches in Nashville.

"Cookie" is Jewel Mae Orcutt (Patricia Neal), a Southern matriarch who lives with Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), the aforementioned inebriated wanderer, a handyman of sorts with whom Cookie shares memories. Their love for one another is clear, but there's no one on the planet that Cookie cares for half as much as her deceased husband, Buck. (Part of Altman's genius has always been the way his characters' residences tell their story for them. Before Cookie has expressed her loneliness, you notice her house practically whispers thoughts of suicide: a gun cabinet that won't stay closed, stairs that lead up to shimmering light, etc.) One day Cookie decides she's missed her husband enough. With best friend Willis away, she gets out her favorite jewelry, rereads some old love letters, and shoots herself in the head with Buck's favorite gun.

Unfortunately, the first people on the scene are Cookie's two godawful nieces: Camille (Glenn Close), arriving in a foul mood to reclaim a fruit bowl for a dinner party, and Cora (Julianne Moore), a wispish little acquiescer to any and all of Camille's wishes. Camille, outraged at the thought of a suicide in the family and desperate to move without scandal into a home she's sure she'll inherit, leaps into action. She gets rid of the gun (still dangling from Cookie's finger), snatches up some bracelets and necklaces, and eats the suicide note. When the police arrive, they are looking at a murder investigation. Even though they all know Willis is innocent, he is the prime suspect, and is therefore taken to jail.

It's not an uncomfortable situation, really. Lt. Boyle (Ned Beatty) has fished with Willis, and is confident he's not the killing sort. Consequently, Willis sits in jail with the cell door open playing Scrabble with Boyle and his lawyer (Donald Moffat), while Cora's daughter Emma (Liv Tyler)--apparently Cookie's only loving relative--spikes Willis' coffee with the confiscated Wild Turkey. Meanwhile the "murder" investigation continues, with criminologist Otis Tucker (Courtney B. Vance) conducting interviews around town.

Please don't worry too much about the plot; it's clear the filmmakers didn't. Leaving aside the playful perversity of having a hero who sits around all movie long, confident he'll be proven innocent, there's never an attempt at the suspense or thrills that Altman so ably provided in his last film (also with a Southern setting), The Gingerbread Man. Instead, Tucker's investigation, which solves everything almost as an afterthought, is merely an excuse for the movie to roam around Holly Springs and spend time with everybody we've met before, however briefly.

It's a typically off-kilter collection of people, and Altman captures them with the same cynical fondness he's always displayed. Almost all the actors are perfect: no surprise from pros like Neal, Dutton, and Beatty, but the director pulls off two casting miracles by getting charming, believable performances from both Tyler and Chris O'Donnell. Unfortunately, the one exception is significant enough to seriously weaken the picture. Glenn Close hams up the part of Camille so drastically that she alone becomes more caricature than character. The actress isn't entirely to blame since the part is so thinly written, but having leapt only upon the grotesque aspects of her role, she weakens what could have been a tragic (well, okay... sad) comeuppance into silly histrionics. It doesn't help that, in nearly all her scenes, she's up against the nuanced Moore, who could have been just as coarse, but instead makes Cora touching in her ridiculousness.

So it's not great Altman. But as someone who treasures even bad Altman (and this certainly isn't that), Cookie's Fortune works just fine for me. If you want them, there are plenty of thoughtful--even rueful--themes floating around the movie: idealized, hypocritical notions of the past and of honor, the way family secrets hurt the person keeping them even more than the person who ferrets them out. When I think of this film, however, I keep coming back not to any ideas, but to its very last shot. Altman movies end with death so often it's practically a cliché, but here, after everything gets sorted out without too much harm to anyone, there's just a long, peaceful look at a lake, with fishing lines bobbing gently. As I said before, relaxed and mellow. Add to that: masterful.