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"Cookie's Fortune"

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Robert Altman, at 74, keeps turning them out. You never know what he's going to give you, and sometimes after you've seen one of his films, you still don't know. His latest, Cookie's Fortune, set in small-town Mississippi, is pleasingly shaggy. You keep expecting it to drop a few octaves, but it never does; it's Delta pop that never becomes Delta blues. Still, this may not be such a bad thing. Altman's folkloric feints and throwaways are very easy on the eyes; he shows off his townspeople with such affection that after a while they begin to glow. The movie is a jaunty little jape.

The Cookie of the title is Jewel Mae Orcutt (Patricia Neal), a pipe-smoking crone who lives alone and so laments the loss of her late husband, Buck, that shortly into the movie she writes a farewell note and then ceremoniously puts a pillow over her head and shoots into it. Cookie's niece Camille (Glenn Close) stumbles in on the splatter, swallows the note and, for the sake of southern family pride, tries to make the leave-taking look like murder -- that is to say, something respectable. Willis (Charles S. Dutton), Cookie's caretaker and best friend, gets blamed, but nobody in town is convinced. The local policeman (Ned Beatty) knows Willis couldn't do such a thing, because he's a fishing buddy. It's that kind of film.

Southern gothic has often swung down from the branches of gnarled family trees. Altman and his screenwriter, Anne Rapp, parody the twistedness of southern family genealogy; our confusion about who means what to whom becomes part of the fun. So does the way the smallness of this town prevents anything from being a secret for long. The more you try to cover up the more you reveal.

Camille, the impresario of the Easter play -- Oscar Wilde's Salome, no less -- is a wannabe aristocrat who keeps getting brought up short by her community's common ways. She sees herself as an antebellum lady of quality, but in the overwrought way in which Close portrays her, she's more like Cruella DeVil or Norma Desmond (both of whom Close has already played).

The rest of the cast is more congenial to Altman's low-key wigginess -- especially, and surprisingly, Liv Tyler and Chris O'Donnell, as moonstruck lovers addicted to impromptu sessions of heavy petting. Julianne Moore, as Camille's sister, is a lyric cuckoo. Playing Wilde, she takes her role so seriously that offstage, after rehearsals, she works Salome-like phrasings into her already addled patter. (As she also demonstrated in Boogie Nights, Moore is incomparable at playing terrible actresses.) Best is Dutton, who gives Willis such an easygoing comic grace that he seems to be dancing the part. No one should live out this year without watching Willis waddle his way home with a whiskey bottle tucked in his pants. It's a thing of beauty.


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