|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 16 November 1999|
Working from a well-observed original script by Anne Rapp, Altman takes his time introducing his large cast of characters, and in establishing their relationships as well. (In fact, there are some surprises regarding the relationships that are held back until the end of the movie.)
We first meet Willis Richmond (Charles S. Dutton), who works for Cookie, even living in the back of her house. They have a deeply affectionate but slightly caustic relationship; they've been making small digs at each other for many years, and always keep score. Willis is black and Cookie is white, as well as considerably older, but the two deeply respect and depend on one another.
We also meet Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) and her possibly airheaded sister Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore); we eventually learn that they are Cookie's nieces -- though unlike everyone else in town, they insist on referring to her as Jewel Mae. Camille is a tightassed, status-conscious spinster who rules Cora's life, Cora's husband having run off long ago. As the movie opens, Camille is directing rehearsals of a church production of Salome; the sign outside says the play is "by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon." Camille is not inclined to hide her light under a bushel, and fancies herself one of those classic steel magnolias, rolling right over any opposition as if it doesn't exist.
Cora's daughter Emma (Liv Tyler), a big favorite of her great-aunt Cookie, has returned to town; she left when people called her a slut. She's now working for catfish supplier Manny Hood (Lyle Lovett), who worships her from a little farther off than he'd really like. But she's crazy about Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell); he's none too bright, but he's a handsome local kid who's now a cop.
The morning before Easter, Cookie sends Willis off to the store, then slowly and painfully climbs the stairs to her bedroom. She deeply misses her beloved husband Buck, who died years back, and she's pretty much in constant pain. She leaves a note for Willis, then shoots herself.
Unfortunately, the first person on the scene is Camille, who cannot stand the thought of a SUICIDE in her family -- why, the whole town would talk. So she crudely redresses the scene, relying on her "theatrical training;" when Cora wanders in, Camille impulsively eats the suicide note.
What she doesn't expect, but doesn't contradict, is the regretful belief of the local sheriff that Cookie was murdered by Willis.
But 'Cookie's Fortune' is an amiable comedy, not another tale of how a black man is framed by whites. No one, including Willis, really worries about the possibility of his being convicted. Deputy Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty), for example, is serenely confident of Willis' innocence since they often go fishing together.
'Cookie's Fortune' took some people aback, evidently feeling that Altman should put his considerable talents behind more serious endeavors. But it's obvious from the movie itself that he and his cast had a great time making this oddball, ingratiating movie. It's an exceptionally good cast, too; Neal, Moore, Close, Tyler, beatty and even O'Donnell are excellent.
But the heart of the story and the heart of the movie is Charles S. Dutton as Willis Richland. A great actor who has not yet found his great role, Dutton is instantly likable, a friendly guy who has few cares and worries really only about Cookie and her relationship with her family. He's also deeply fond in an avuncular manner of Emma, and she adores him, too. (When he's put in jail, she joins him, but keeps sneaking off to screw Jason.)
Dutton is Willis right down to his loafers; he's worked out a very funny walk, a kind of shambling amble, as if his feet used to hurt, but feel fine now. It's a treat just watching Dutton stroll about the small town, interacting amiably with everyone he meets. Dutton is simply perfect.
While "amiable" also applies perfectly to 'Cookie's Fortune' itself, the movie isn't just tossed off. The Southern blues-flavored score by David Stewart is brilliantly realized from the opening credits to the closing, understated, highly regional, and deeply satisfying. The photography by Toyomichi Kurita is redolent of magnolias, Spanish moss and warm spring mornings.
The sound is naturalistic, making excellent use of stereo; the ambient sounds wrap you up in the Southern atmosphere along with the excellent photography.
Though the plot seems casual, it's actually very intricate and carefully worked out, full of small details and character touches as well. Although it goes on too long, 'Cookie's Fortune' is one of Altman's most polished films.
The DVD is attractive, but low on extras. Altman's commentary track is a significant disappointment; he has little to tell us other than to relate what's happening on the screen -- and we can see that. At one point, he mentions having worked on the script with Anne Rapp for some time; learning how it developed, what changes it underwent on the way to the screen, would have been very interesting. So, too, could we have known more about casting -- why these actors? -- and the extensive location work.
But extras are really that: material in addition to the movie itself. 'Cookie's Fortune' is a worthwhile purchase even with the disappointing commentary track and dearth of extras.