Cookie's Fortune July 27, 2015
Robert Altman can be many things. He can be warped, sarcastic, biting — but he can also be affectionate and understanding. His best films often combine these characteristics with slippery aplomb. I prefer him when he’s gazing upon his characters with head-shaking fondness instead of subtle disdain that suggests he’s about to pause and whisper what comes around goes around.
Certainly, Cookie’s Fortune isn’t comprised of saintly characters. But unlike Short Cuts or Nashville, only a few of the players are wholeheartedly fucked up, giving us less time to analyze potentially devilish psyches and more to relish the tight, almost familial bonds between the ever compelling characters. It’s one of his most entertaining films.
Set in a minuscule Southern town defined by colorful people, sweat, and catfish — in that order, Cookie’s Fortune details the sudden death of Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt (Patricia Neal), an elderly widow tired of living alone and tired of her mundane life. So without much thought, she grabs a gun out of her impressive arms closet, flops onto her bed, places a pillow over her face, and shoots herself in the head.
Her niece, Camille (Glenn Close), won’t have it. A wannabe playwright with a fondness for cranking up her every emotion by a few thousand notches, she is disgusted by her aunt’s carelessness: it will bring shame upon the family, and, most notably, it may even upstage her upcoming play. Consumed with dramatic audacity, she arrives at the scene and decides it would be best to make the suicide actually look like a murder: why not? She runs around the house pretending she’s a giallo fiend, breaking windows, stealing valuables, eventually running out the back and throwing the gun into some bushes like Joan Crawford might have during her 1950s-set film noir years. She persuades her dimwitted sister, Cora (Julianne Moore), to go along with the charade, not realizing that covering up a suicide isn’t just some cutesy thing mercurial nieces do for fun. It could lead to, you know, trouble.
Immediately, Cookie’s best friend and confidant, Willis (Charles S. Dutton), is locked up at the local sheriff’s office under suspicion, Cora’s estranged daughter, Emma (Liv Tyler), keeping him company while also utilizing the opportunity to have closet sex with her cop boyfriend (Chris O’Donnell) to pass the time. No one, including the men who arrested Willis in the first place, believe he’s the murderer — which casts further suspicion onto Cookie’s weirdo nieces.
But Cookie’s Fortune isn’t a conventional crime movie, preferring to use its titular figure’s sudden offing as a way of throwing the Mississippi set town off course and seeing how its residents handle the travesty. Anne Rapp’s screenplay always retains a certain sort of comic lushness that makes the intersecting situations ceaselessly delightful while also maintaining a sort of broad realism. These people certainly could exist — not all realism based films have to be dirt-on-the-ground miserable — and Cookie’s Fortune is all the more fun for it. Close is a bundle of laughs, delivering off-color lines like an unintentional comedy pro, Neal ensuring why Cookie was such a vital part of her town’s life. Dutton is one of Altman’s sweetest scene-stealers, and Tyler, in a terrific performance, is a consistent pleasure as a free-spirit that seasons the oft conservative setting of the film.
Most consider Cookie’s Fortune to be minor Altman, but I think it’s underrated Altman. He regularly goes deep with his films, finding ways to mirror the lives of his flawed characters with our own. Cookie’s Fortune is such a delicacy because it’s breezy, amusing without any existential kinks. He sets scenes with a sort of nostalgic reverie, figuring that small town America isn’t all Twin Peaks and can still preserve the same sort of complicated magic of a ‘70s sitcom. We watch the characters converse wanting to be a part of their community, either because the friendships seem everlasting or because the disdainfulness is comical rather than harmful. Most would want to get out of the town Cookie’s Fortune sets itself in right away — not me. I’d like to hole up there for a while, collect my thoughts and have conversation about the good things in life instead of the high drama that shapes the metropolises of America. Lightweight Altman may not be everyone’s favorite, but I tend to prefer a grizzled filmmaker when he’s enjoying himself. So maybe Cookie’s Fortune is an accidental masterpiece — it’s an underrated moment in his lustrous career. A-