Sweet Southern LullabyBy Roy Rodenstein
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Anne Rapp
With Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Charles S. Dutton.
Homecoming. That’s what Cookie’s Fortune feels like to a Robert Altman-watcher. Though Altman has aptly commanded genres from a black-comedy war film (M*A*S*H) to a ravishing thriller (The Player), this small story shows the director not just in full control but at ease.
Altman’s latest is no cookie-cutter murder mystery. For one thing, there is no mystery -- but that doesn’t blunt the movie’s wit in the least. For another, even when Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), an innocent black man, is thrown in jail for the alleged murder of Cookie Orcutt (Patricia Neal), a rich elderly white woman, the audience rests easy. Maybe it has something to do with the police lieutenant keeping the cell door open and playing scrabble with the accused, dressed down to what might only leniently be called civilian clothes. “How can you be so sure he’s innocent?” the lieutenant is asked. “Because I’ve fished with him,” he replies.
Cookie’s Fortune has a lot of fun with the genre. The innocent, Willis Richland, is shown wandering drunkenly around town and handling guns in front of old Cookie, but this set-up is intentionally misleading. Cookie and Willis are the best of friends, and when she is found dead the next day, it’s only through Camille Dixon’s (Glenn Close) spite that Willis becomes a murder suspect. The police lieutenant is not the only person to join Willis in his cell: young Emma Duvall (Liv Tyler), who confesses to enough crimes to warrant most-wanted criminal status in the little town, is also grudgingly allowed to hang around in jail and keep him company. Camille herself is a woman hilariously disconnected from the world. Like Beverly Sutphin in John Waters’ Serial Mom, Camille simply has no concept of right and wrong, probably does not even know that such concepts exist, and this freedom allows for some great broad comedy.
Cursing at Cookie’s body, stealing from the dead, and terrorizing her mousy sister Cora (Julianne Moore), are all in a day’s work for Camille; not that she’s actually any good at covering up a crime. Her zeal for plotting flows easily from real-life deaths to the stage, where she directs the town’s version of “Salome, by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon.” Camille is, in short, a quick-witted numbskull. In reverse, Cora is slow-witted, but she catches on with a vengeance.
The usually juicy ensemble Altman has at his disposal this time includes old standbys like Ned Beatty as the loyal lieutenant and new starlets like Chris O’Donnell and Liv Tyler as a sweetly frisky couple: he is the very novice cop, Jason Brown, and she is the town stray, Emma Duvall. When Emma jumps into jail to comfort Willis, the young lovers are kept apart. Well, they would be, if the cell door weren’t open and the nook behind the pop machine weren’t invitingly deserted. Courtney B. Vance, on the other hand, heads the murder investigation with full seriousness as investigator Otis Tucker, even in the face of come-ons by both fellow officers and witnesses during questioning. Meanwhile, soft-spoken Willis sits in jail, protesting his innocence by day, smiling in cozy self-assurance by night. Lesser roles, such as the folks at the local bar, also pack a punch.
The dialogue is regularly smart in Anne Rapp’s first screenplay. The movie benefits from her experience as script supervisor in such films as Lawrence Kasdan’s The Accidental Tourist and David Mamet’s Things Change. The real bonus, though, is Altman’s treatment of each scene as a small treasure. Some, such as a delectable sequence involving a boy, an Easter-egg hunt, and a murder weapon, could be dropped right into Monty Python. Others, like Lyle Lovett’s squalid catfish salesman fixing up an abandoned train car for Emma to live in, are refreshingly different. Twilight Zone or Family Circus, Altman’s sense for variations on the bizarre keeps things rolling. The final scene may be too far out for some to buy, resting as it is solely on spunk provided by Close and Altman.
As out-and-out enjoyable as the movie is, its few problems stand out distractingly. Though Patricia Neal’s performance as Jewel Mae “Cookie” Orcutt is affecting, its tone is just too different from the rest of the movie, and the complete lack of characterization of her dead husband Buck makes her longing for him an artifact. It’s likely the filmmakers knowingly jeopardized consistency in reaching for some emotional depth. Another unfortunate aspect is the movie’s neat tying up of ends at its conclusion with several random surprises. The town’s tender cohesiveness was magical enough without such manipulation. These flaws are unsavory drops in a small film that’s a refreshing glass of sweet iced tea.