COOKIE’S FORTUNE (1999)

If there was ever another filmmaker who could work as comfortably in any American state on the map as Robert Altman could, I know him or her not. While the Coen Brothers might be able to stake a claim to have traversed the lower 48 with the same kind of bemused charm as Altman, their approach to character is too biting and, sometimes, too mlcondescending to radiate the same kind of warmth as is evidenced in the world of Altman.

Presented into the court record is Cookie’s Fortune, Altman’s 1999 follow-up to the extremely conventional John Grisham potboiler, The Gingerbread Man. In his final film of a century that saw him create some of the greatest and most monumental examples of cinematic art, Robert Altman struck a relaxed and elegiac tone while still throwing firebombs at the kind of close-mindedness that continues to choke the best life out of otherwise lovely towns and burgs all over this fine land.

Set over Easter weekend in the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi, Cookie’s Fortune casts a relaxed eye at the low-simmering drama that envelops the characters of Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt (Patricia Neal), and her nieces, Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) and Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore). As the tenuous thread of their relationship snaps upon Cookie’s suicide early in the film, all of the fine southern decorum begins to slowly dissolve as further events occur and secrets begin to gradually bubble to the surface.

As stated before, this film is breezy and relaxed but contains Altman’s most savage attacks on the hypocrisy southern tradition seen in things like Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or even Nashville. Glenn Close’s hilarious and shrill Camille puts herself into severe jeopardy as much because she can’t stand the town to know that Cookie committed suicide as she is her wide-eyed greed. Hell, she even insists on calling Cookie “Jewel Mae” as to insinuate a sort of cheap vulgarity of some kind in the nickname that is most definitely not befitting a southern family.

But in trying to preserve a certain kind of genteel appearance, Camille also erases a kind of warm progressiveness that her aunt exhibited. Cookie is a good one. She smokes a pipe, doesn’t suffer fools, and isn’t judgmental to her great-niece (Liv Tyler) whose rather normal libido causes her to look like a harlot to the gatekeeper of southern values. And as Cookie, Patricia Neal is just wonderful and plays it with a sweet exhaustion of a woman whose time on this earth without her beloved husband is not necessarily unmanageable but who is also more than ready to close the book on the whole affair. Sometimes we want company to stay just as much as they’re ready to go home and Neal conveys that in her final scene with Buck (Charles S. Dutton), the caretaker who lives on Cookie’s property and her closest confidant.

The action in the film parallels the last minute preparations of the local Easter play, Salome, which, on the programs and marquee, is a work penned by both Oscar Wilde AND Camille Dixon (the marquee also provides some laughs early on with its thought-of-the-day proclamation that “Pride and pretense are the jockeys of misfortune”). Camille nudges everyone in the town as if they are players in Salome, which she is actually directing, but everyone more or less moves around her and pay her no mind. But it’s also a movie where a beloved black man in town can sit in prison on suspicion of murder, a charge nobody in law enforcement actually believes, while a white woman can luxuriate in a crime scene and contaminate evidence with reckless abandon.

Unlike The Gingerbread Man (which was set in Georgia but was, for an Altman film, unusually blind to most folks of color), this is a film fixed tightly in the south where the black community is seen and heard but, as in Nashville and Kansas City, lives amidst an uncomfortably relaxed truce with the white community, Buck being the bridge between the two and his relationship with Cookie and her niece being key. Blocking the flow of blood from the heart is Camille, done up in pastels and forever pissed that Cookie ended up with the family fruit salad bowl.

Cookie’s Fortune is the film that exemplifies why “I’ve fished with him” is as good as evidence as any to not charge a man with a crime; almost as if Altman is doing the Andy Griffith Show where the difference between “took” and “steal” is a wide one in the eyes of the town even though the law flattens it out to have no nuance. It so pains Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty), bemused sheriff’s deputy, to have to even go through the questioning of the crestfallen Buck whom Lester knows is completely innocent of Cookie’s death. The pause between the two is heartbreaking and real even if it’s in a film where Buck’s incarceration is taken so lightly that the cell doors are left open at all times and most of the time is spent playing Scrabble with Lester.

Aside from the amazing performances given by Close, Neal, Dutton, and Beatty, the remainder of the cast of Cookie’s Fortune is likewise wonderful and they all seem so happy to be there that there is a very specific warmth that radiates off the screen. Julianne Moore’s dizzy Cora is an oft overlooked performance in a wardrobe box full of great ones and Chris O’ Donnell does a marvelous job playing the kind of role David Arkin once embodied in the Altman films of early to late 70’s. Rufus Thomas and Ruby Wilson’s juke-joint couple occupy a scene that gets the biggest laugh in which both are separately interrogated by Courtney B. Vance’s big city cop who gives Wilson and Niecy Nash’s characters the absolute vapors. It’s also nifty to see Donald Moffat’s soft-spoken lawyer riding around town on a two wheeled mode of transportation as if his Tax Man from Popeye had turned over a new leaf after having his ass thrown into the sea.

With a screenplay by longtime powerhouse script supervisor Anne Rapp, Cookie’s Fortune unfolds like an amazing and delicious three course meal (though not one set in a downpour and amid crime scene tape). Altman also employs an outsider’s touch with a convincingly organic blues score by Brit Dave Stewart and beautifully composed and rich camera work by Toyomichi Kurita, Japanese cinematographer who got his start in a couple of Alan Rudolph films (The Moderns and Trouble in Mind).

So much of Altman’s work is about the lies we tell ourselves to reckon with the pain in our lives and Cookie’s Fortune is no different. It’s strangely one of Altman’s sunniest films but it cleverly inverts the usual game plan by showing what happens when all of those lies and deceits (which they always ultimately do) come home to roost. Light as a feather but yet densely layered while being both intimate but complex, Cookie’s Fortune is an absolute treasure and shows just how effortless Altman could make it all seem. It is a small miracle, indeed.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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