April 25, 1999 -- Robert Altman, the director who has produced some real movie gems in "M.A.S.H.," "Nashville" and "The Player," has produced another in "Cookie's Fortune," a thoroughly southern comedy.
Dripping with atmosphere and charm like "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," this film embodies the easy pace of southern life and has the usual assortment of goofy, but lovable characters. It really isn't a murder mystery, because we know right up front it wasn't a murder, but the police are led to think it was by the scheming Camille Orcutt (Glenn Close of "Air Force One"), who plants clues at the scene to make police think it was a murder.
In fact, Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt (veteran actress Patricia Neal), the supposed murder victim, shot herself. Camille, who felt that suicide was bad for the family's dignity, conspired with her sister, Cora Duvall, (Julianne Moore of "Jurassic Park: The Lost World" and "Boogie Nights") to make it look like a break-in and murder. Because his fingerprints are all over the scene, Willis Richland (Charles Dutton of "Get on the Bus" and "Mimic") is arrested on suspicion of murder. Richland has been taking care of Cookie for years. Unlucky for him, he had just cleaned all the guns in the house the night before Cookie killed herself.
One of the investigating cops, Lester Boyle (veteran actor Ned Beatty), is certain that Richland had nothing to do with the shooting. Why? "Because I've been fishing with him," Boyle says. So sure is Boyle that Richland is innocent that he leaves the cell door open and spends much of his time playing Scrabble with Richland. Another Scrabble player is yet another relative, Emma Duvall (Liv Tyler of "Armageddon"), who has the hots for another investigating officer, Jason Brown (Chris O'Donnell of "Batman and Robin"). Brown doesn't have a clue about being a cop, but he sure has a healthy libido.
The investigation stumbles along in a hilarious manner, completely missing the mark as the only brains in town continue to play Scrabble in a cell down at the jail. Eventually, things get more or less straightened out when Cookie's will is read and a certain blood sample found at the scene of the "crime" produces some unexpected results.
Most of Altman's Films are hard-edged, with bitter, black, murderous images, especially "Short Cuts." This is a kinder, gentler film without the random violence and angst that marks some of his efforts. Altman's characteristic overlapping conversations seem to be almost completely absent in this film as well. It is, for want of a better term, a more "normal" kind of film than one expects from Altman, but very well crafted, nonetheless, and with a rather unusual storyline.
Altman hits just the right, easygoing pace in this film, and the actors, led by Close, Dutton, and Beatty, do an outstanding job. Also of note are the performances of Donald Moffatt as Jack Palmer, the town's only lawyer and Julianne Moore, who plays a doozy of a brow-beaten ditz. Close is really in her element as the grandiose, scheming, manipulative, evil, bumbling Camille. This film rates an A.
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