A Film by Robert Altman
Robert Altman's newest film may not achieve the level of his greatest triumphs, but it is a charming little piece, and a great relief for Altman fans after the misguided effort at commercialism that was The Gingerbread Man. Cookie's Fortune is the kind of understated ensemble character comedy with which Altman's hand is sure.
With an outstanding cast doing interesting, unusual work, the movie is an actor's film. If the writing had been a little stronger, it might have ranked with some of Altman's best. His handling of the characters and his visual presentation of the story is as strong as ever. But first-time screen writer Anne Rapp has created a story and script that, despite its often genuine feel, comes across as uneven, and Altman has not been able to strengthen it.
Altman has described the film as a "comedy of manners." This is a form that uses humor to explore the idiosyncrasies of cultural and personal patterns of behavior. The events of the story are less important than the way characters react to them.
On one level, many of Altman's films can be seen in this light. He is always as much interested in character as in story. In many of his films this examination takes the form of a broad and incisive satire that skewers the hypocritical cynicism of some characters as thoroughly as the hypocritical idealism of others.
In Cookie's Fortune, he takes a kinder, gentler approach. The film was shot on location in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In an interview, Altman said that his crew didn't touch a thing in the town when they filmed, they basically used it as they found it - '...it was our studio." The film was influenced by the town.
Although the theme is one that is long-standing in Altman's work - the contrast between the facade of our lives and our interior experience of them - in this film he seems to view that divergence with sympathy and forgiveness, rather than condemnation and disgust, as he sometimes has.
The story concerns an old family in a small, backwater Southern town. Everyone knows everyone else's secrets - or thinks they do - but no one believes that anyone knows their own. Jewel Mae, familiarly known as "Cookie," (Patricia Neal) the widow of one of the town's wealthier and more flamboyant citizens, Buck Orcutt, lives alone in her fine house. Her caretaker and man-of-all-work Willis Richland (William S. Dutton) lives a little cottage out back.
Cookie is feeling the ravages of her age, and is mourning and longing for Buck. In hopes of being reunited with him, she takes her own life. Her neurotic, obsessive niece Camille (Glenn Close) finds the body, and with the tentative and unpredictable help of her slightly-unbalanced sister Cora seeks to conceal the "shame" of her aunt's suicide by trying to make it look like a robbery and murder.
Suspicion falls on Willis, and he is hauled off to jail, much to everyone's' consternation. Emma (Liv Tyler), Cookie's granddaughter and Cora's daughter, who is estranged from her mother and aunt Camille comes to his defense, as does his friend and catfishing partner, the local sheriff Lester (Ned Beatty).
Lester's explanation of his certainty of Willis's innocence is typical of the naive intelligence Altman is championing here. "How do you know he didn't do it?" his boss asks. "I've fished with the man" Lester replies. He is referring to the intuitive bonds that grow up between people from the day-in-day-out associations of small town life.
In the course of further investigation, unexpected family secrets are revealed and the "murder," as Shakespeare predicted, outs. Along the way, Altman has a field day with both his characters and even the audience. He paints an affectionate but wry portrait of the quirks of theatrical production (and by inference the movie-making process as well) with the tightly-wound Camille as the director, steering the show with white-knuckled hands.
He throws a monkey wrench into the stereotypical vision of race relations and how race affects the sense of personal identity. He presents the most amusing picture of the misplaced self-importance of men in uniform since "Officer Obie" in Alice's Restaurant. Here again, the satire is mitigated by a sympathy that can laugh at idiosyncrasy without ridiculing it.
He pokes fun at the audience as well, with a scene in which the proprietor of the local "catfish shack," Manny (Lyle Lovatt), is going about his business while being questioned by the local cops. In a throw-away sub-text to the scene, he suddenly connects the "film-world" to the visceral realities of life in a way that would be perfectly natural to someone who grew up in Holly Springs, but made the urban audience with whom I saw the film wince and squirm.
As always under Altman's hand, the actors do fine work. Particularly notable is Liv Tyler, who has been used more as an icon than an actress in the past. In this film she is given space to explore a real personality, and she does it with skill and charm.
Patricia Neal goes beyond the bounds of the "dotty-old-lady" stereotype to fill her role with appealing authenticity. Her performance here, in its simplicity and grace, is one of her best ever. Particularly in her work in establishing the relationship with Dutton's character, she manages to convey a mixture of affection, competition and respect that rings true.
This is to Dutton's credit as well. A fine actor, he gives intricate dimension to a character that could easily have become a sentimental stereotype. His work with Neal, Tyler and Beatty particularly, establishes the rapport between the characters that is essential to make this kind of subtle film work.
Julianne Moore plays against her usually glamorous image as the mildly off-kilter Cora. Alternating a slightly un-natural brightness with fits of mis-placed determination and out-of-focus reflection, she manages to suggest Cora's disorientation and vulnerability without making her either ridiculous or pathetic.
Glen Close has the most difficult job. Her part is a little over-written, and is the pivot around which the tension of the film turns. Her actions and reactions are extreme, and it is a challenge to try to make her character's extravagances seem believable.
To her credit, she does it most of the time. In her capacity as leader of the church theatrical, she gives a brilliant comic interpretation of the petty power-games and self-aggrandizement of the director's role - a little self-parody on Altman's part.
The weight of trying to resolve the entire plot of the film, however, is more that she can carry. The believability of her character ultimately fails, both in the writing and in her realization, and it casts an unfortunate false note that weakens the whole film.
Altman has rightly made the town of Holly Springs one of the stars of the film. To the extent that he is exploring "sense of place" and its healing, healthful effects on the human spirit, the town is far more than mere background. Toyomichi Kurita's off-hand camera style, featuring free camera movement, partially obscured framing, wandering attention and sudden shifts, gives the film the sense of being personally observed rather than framed and presented that is a hallmark of Altman's style - nobody does it better.
The production design, by Altman's son Stephen who also served as second unit director, is unforced and natural. As Robert Altman said in his interview, "We didn't even have to change the signs or move the cars." The interior sets avoid the typical preciousness and over-abundance of detail that can break the flow by reminding us that we are watching a movie.
Cookie's Fortune is a small film to begin with, more like a Eudora Welty short story than a Faulkner novel. Unfortunately, it isn't written with the economy of a Welty story (if it had been, it would have been a French film, like the Six Moral Tales series of Eric Rohmer).The pressures of the commercial market demand "dramatic action," and Rapp and Altman have tried to supply it, to the detriment of the film.
Still - a flawed Robert Altman film stands head and shoulders above the best work a studio-hack like soi-disant "King Of The World" James Cameron did on the best day of his life. With a maturing understanding that less is more and a renewed sympathy for the underlying humanity of his characters, as well as his wonderful work with actors and his outstanding ability as a visual story-teller, Altman continues to grow and to offer something new and interesting to audiences and to the craft of film-making.
That's my take on it. What's yours?