Easter eggs and bourbon

Charles Taylor reviews Robert Altman's new comedy, 'Cookie's Fortune'.

Published April 2, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

A friend of mine who grew up in Tennessee and attended Harvard once defined the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism this way: In the South, he said, white people don't care how close black people get as long as they don't get too high; in the North it's just the opposite. Taking my friend's word for the South, and knowing what I've seen living most of my life in Boston, I'd venture to say he got it right. At the heart of "Cookie's Fortune" is a slyly sweet joke about Southern community and blood ties, how the social and racial mixing that was always present (if not acknowledged or encouraged) has come to the surface in the "new South."

"Cookie's Fortune" is a Southern gothic comedy that might have sprung from one of novelist Lee Smith's woollier outings, or perhaps from Jill McCorkle. But it was directed by Robert Altman, and Altman's digressive, shaggy-dog style turns out to be well-suited to Southern Gothic. It would be tempting to label that style as that of a veteran prankster if we didn't know Altman had been making movies this way for more than 30 years. And even if we're used to his style by now, there's still nothing else like it. "Cookie's Fortune" is relaxed, but it isn't pokey or dawdling. Altman still plunges into a story and expects the audience to get its bearings along the way. He doesn't stop to explain who's who and what's what.

"Cookie's Fortune," the first produced screenplay by Anne Rapp (who has worked as script supervisor on a number of films), is set over Easter weekend in a small Mississippi town. It's about a grand foul-up set in motion after the demise of the elderly widow Cookie (Patricia Neal), and the attempts of her prim and proper niece Camille (Glenn Close) to disguise the embarrassing -- to Camille -- circumstances of her aunt's death. Camille's "tidying up" plays havoc with the settled existence of Willis (Charles S. Dutton), Cookie's live-in handyman and best friend. Long before Cookie dies, Camille objects to the old woman's way of life. But Cookie doesn't gave a damn for propriety or position (which are everything to Camille). The beautiful old Southern home she lives in is starting to go just a little to seed, and you get the feeling that's fine with Cookie. It's more comfortable that way -- the same way she's comfortable throwing on a sweatshirt and dressing it up with beads and a brooch, or smoking her pipe and doing crossword puzzles while Willis putters around. The scenes between Cookie and Willis that open the movie suggest what the relationship between Daisy and Hoke in "Driving Miss Daisy" might have been if they'd had 40 years to allow the cultural barriers between them to start crumbling. Cookie and Willis take their familiarity for granted. They know each other's jokes and quirks backward, and if their banter sounds like kvetching most of the time, it's because they're good enough friends to be able to leave the important things unsaid.

This is the first movie Patricia Neal has made in 10 years, and she does more to create a complex, full-blooded character in her few scenes than most actors do over the course of entire pictures. Cookie's body is starting to wear out on her, but Neal moves through her scenes with the worn grace of someone at home with who she is -- aches, pains and all. At her best, there's always been something admirably gravelly about Patricia Neal, a connection to the grit of real life. And that's what keeps her from going soft in the scenes where Cookie, alone, can let out all the feelings she keeps in check around Willis, like the tears that overtake her when a broken cabinet door reminds her of how much she misses her dead husband. Or the beautiful scene where she walks through her bedroom, surveying the treasures she's acquired in the course of her life and reveling in the memories each one calls up. The tone of the movie seems to be set by Neal's voice, which is warm as bourbon, slow and sweet as honey.

"Cookie's Fortune" is a trifle, but there are directors who, even in their most ambitious projects, go through their whole career without achieving the confidence that comes so casually to Altman here. Rapp's screenplay has a rather lumpy structure, but that allows Altman to meander a bit, to take pleasure in his actors and the story's milieu. At times the film feels like one of Willis' fishing expeditions with his buddies Lester (Ned Beatty) and Jack (Donald Moffat), an excuse for people who like each other to spend a few hours in each other's company. I don't know that Altman has ever invested objects with the emotion he does here: like the sudden shower of feathers that serves as an image of death; or Cookie's accumulated bric-a-brac, which means more to her than the few valuable things she owns; or Willis' room, where his whole life seems laid out neatly and without ostentation. The movie's press materials refer to Toyomichi Kurita's cinematography as Renoiresque, and that's not just some publicist blowing smoke. The colors here are saturated, and everything is seen through the nimbus of a light humidity.

As in nearly every Altman movie, there are so many characters that some are shortchanged. Lyle Lovett skulks around the edges of the picture in a nonexistent role. And it's a disappointment that the fine actor Courtney B. Vance, who doesn't work in movies enough, doesn't have more to do in his role as a police detective, though he seems to communicate all of his character's wit and incredulity just by the way he tilts his sharpie's straw hat. And though they're central to the plot, you might wish Julianne Moore and Glenn Close had less screen time. It's not just that Julianne Moore is too young for the role of Cora, the spinster whose life is ruled by her henpecking sister Camille; it's that the role cancels out Moore's natural vibrancy and canniness. Moore can convey neuroses, but not Cora's washed-out kind. Close's Camille is thornier. The part requires the sort of stylized nastiness that Tess Harper had in "Crimes of the Heart": magnolia on the outside, vinegar on the inside. But it feeds right into Close's propensity for grotesque overacting. And the final plot development feeds right into the cruel streak Altman has never overcome. Coming just after what should be the movie's sweetest turn of events, it curdles things a bit.

Altman's sure touch with actors is present in his handling of Liv Tyler as Cookie's rebellious grandniece, Emma, and Chris O'Donnell as Jason, the town's young police officer. This is the first time O'Donnell has shaken off the stiffness that's hobbled him. He turns Jason's conventionality into a joke, as when he's clomping down the hallways of the police station in a spangly centurion outfit (he's got a part in Camille's production of "Salome"). Instructed to guard a crime scene, O'Donnell is more Hardy Boy than Dirty Harry, and he matches up wonderfully with Tyler (Jason is the type of young man who can fittingly be referred to as her "beau"). This is the first time in which Tyler's acting is a match for her beauty (she's always been a bit forlorn). Altman helps her find some snap, but a relaxed, silly snap, as in the cartoon sound she makes when she takes a midday swig of bourbon. The lazy geniality of the movie is summed up by the way Emma saunters off to take a swim with her cowboy hat and pint of Wild Turkey.

"Cookie's Fortune" belongs to Charles S. Dutton, though. Willis is something like the ambassador for his town, the embodiment of how its various strata have become cheerfully messed up. Dutton is so at ease in the role that it's easy to overlook the range of emotions he plays. He lets everything from his sorrow over Cookie to his affection for Emma well up in him until it fills his big man's frame, though without once violating Willis' dignity. That word too often stands for stolid virtuousness when it's applied to a performance. Not in Dutton's case. When Willis walks home after a night's drinking, his rolling gait is as much from his capacity for pleasure as from the booze inside him. Dutton gives off a welcoming warmth. At times, he seems to stand for the easy hospitality of the entire South.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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