Comedy Under Control

National treasures: Charles S. Dutton and Liv Tyler in Cookie's Fortune

There's a laid-back and flaky Robert Altman whose movies are like a group vacation with no agenda, and then there's a more focused, more crafty Robert Altman whose movies feature homemade echoes and McGuffin-style "clues" leading mostly to their own charm. Both of these can be sneaky showoffs not far removed from the 11-year-old boy who knows some magic tricks and a few bad jokes. But sometimes both of these Altmans actually work together and find a theme worth thinking about--and when they do (as in Nashville, Short Cuts, and The Player), there's no one better.

These two Altmans hold the reins of Cookie's Fortune, which is nothing like a masterpiece, but it's such a sweetly crafted story (from a debut script by Anne Rapp), and with such a well-blended cast, that it sets a standard. Or maybe it just revisits a standard that movie comedies have forgotten about: the goal being to give the laughs some gravity, which oddly enough also gives them a greater ability to soar. Set in a charming but not stereotyped Holly Springs, Mississippi, Cookie's Fortune is about a murder that wasn't really committed, over a fortune that isn't much. In the bargain, it brings friends back together after being apart, and delivers a kind of family reunion to people who didn't realize they were related. Where there used to be just giggly whimsy in Altman's earlier comedies, this one has a decent portion of heart.

Best of all, the movie is loaded with great actors who take their loose reins with gusto but respect the man who holds them (gently). Cookie Duvall is played by the great American actress Patricia Neal (Hud, A Face in the Crowd), and as a craggy old widow, she's half cartoon but still well drawn. She misses her husband Buck, chews on her little tobacco pipes, frets over her wayward grandniece Emma (Liv Tyler), and most of all enjoys the company of her live-in handyman Willis Richland--played by Charles S. Dutton, yet another national acting treasure. Dutton and Neal have only a few scenes together, and while their dialogue seems like well-worn joshing, it also represents years of trust and affection. Altman helps to set this up by proposing--via some nearly clichéd cues of setting, lighting, and action--that Willis might be a drunken burglar with possibly worse on his mind, when in fact he's just doing a favor for Cookie, a little behind schedule.

The idea is that people aren't what they seem at first. This nearly doesn't apply to Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), who's the artsy busybody of Holly Springs and also Cookie's niece. First seen directing a ridiculous church Easter pageant (Salome, of all things), Camille is just a semiprofessional manipulator; like a lot of ditsy Southern ladies in the movies, she puts on the shows, and people let her tell them what to do. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Camille is a worse manipulator. Not only does she order her dimwitted sister Cora (Julianne Moore) around, she finds a way to frame the wrong person for that crime that didn't happen. I need to say here that dear Cookie leaves her mortal coil, and Camille wants her "fortune," and that's why the story goes where it does. Cookie is a great character, and Neal does wonders with her--but her departure also gives many more people a perfect opportunity to create equally comic delights. Some of that comedy is at the expense of poor Willis, for a while.

As a story, Cookie's Fortune is really generous. Altman's movies have often been openhearted to a fault, allowing actors too much time to ad-lib or to stray too far from a sketchy script. His missteps, such as Beyond Therapy, A Wedding, or Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear), can be like bad improvisation from a tired jam session. They want to swing, but instead they sink. Nevertheless, Altman's affection for actors and what they can bring is often rewarded. Here, he's got some old stalwarts like Ned Beatty (as a cop) and Lyle Lovett (as the nearly creepy employer of Emma), and he has even bought some insurance with supposedly audience-friendly younger stars like Tyler and Chris O'Donnell (playing another cop, who's in love with Emma). Altman doles out their free time like a smart party planner: They get to show their best stuff with the most economy, without rambling. Beatty gets to repeat a running gag about trusting guys because he's fished with them, and Lovett gets to seem dangerous without actually being so. But they also get little moments to suggest that behind the funny stuff, these are people with feelings that can be hurt.

Altman's two talents for play and control show up best in a subplot that could have been nothing, but which nearly steals the movie. Once it's assumed that Cookie was murdered, Courtney B. Vance shows up as Otis Tucker, a detective from a bigger burg who won't brook any foolishness from hicks. He does, however, appreciate women, in a tasteful sort of way, and one of them is Wanda Carter (Niecy Nash), the police station's office secretary. As Otis presides over some depositions, his eyes stray to Wanda's, which are likewise inclined. The interplay of lustful looks, tough-cop questioning, and some background foolishness is so neatly balanced among a small ensemble that it's like a Marx Brothers update.

For those detail hunters who noted the license plates in Brewster McCloud or who treasured the Hollywood in-jokes in The Player and M*A*S*H, Altman and Rapp do provide some rewards. Camille's name is a clue to her out-of-touch theatrical personality, and Emma's birth date is a joke in itself. The story plays off Easter weekend, and the presence of bunnies, eggs, and even a resurrected reputation seems aptly artificial. There's also a mildly climactic punch line built on the game-winning placement of "AWE" on a Scrabble board. This kind of stuff has always been enjoyable in Altman films--but it should be said that it's easy to plant cute clues.

What's harder to plant is something that really needs to grow by itself, which is trust in a story and the people who enact it. In many respects, Cookie's Fortune wisely recycles the best traditions of farce, and there's just enough indulgent goofiness to the acting here to suggest that "Easter ham" might be another hidden joke. At least it's grade-A ham. For every dodo pratfall that Chris O'Donnell takes, there's a sweetly lingering medium shot of an enigmatic Lyle Lovett, or a perfectly framed clowning closeup of the fearless Julianne Moore. More than once in Cookie's Fortune, there's a shot where a conversation ends, and the person staying behind gets to say something nice (and maybe also funny) about the person who's gone. That's a sweet little gesture, and it needs to be praised. It shows that for all his skills at surface embellishment, Altman knows something about depths, too.


Cookie's Fortune starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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