Cookie's Fortune

on April 02, 1999 by Ray Greene
   If screened without credits for an audience informed only that it is a new work from a major American director, "Cookie's Fortune" might easily be mistaken for a film by John Sayles. Ostensibly a rural murder mystery (a la Sayles' "Lone Star") but with subtler and more interesting things on its mind, "Cookie's Fortune" paints a wry and knowing portrait of a small southern town ripped apart by the apparent murder of an aging grandmother (Patricia Neal) at the hands of the black caretaker (Charles Dutton) she loved like a son.
   The manifold pleasures on display in "Cookie's Fortune" are in fact the latest output from a much-mellowed Robert Altman, here returning to the type of ensemble work that has been the hallmark of such Altman masterpieces as "M*A*S*H," "Nashville" and the underrated "Short Cuts." Utilizing a wide-ranging cast of A-list talent (including Liv Tyler, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore and Chris O'Donnell), Altman once again appropriates a handful of standard plot devices as the narrative skeleton on which to hang a grand comedic dissection of American life.
   Unerring performances by the large ensemble lend a specificity to the town and the people virtually no other American director would even think to provide. In a cast populated by fine acting jobs, Charles Dutton deserves kudos for what is possibly his subtlest and most believable screen work ever, while Patricia Neal gives something greater than a performance, reminding the viewer with a sense of history that she is something less like an actress, and more like a national treasure.
   Warm, witty and wise, "Cookie's Fortune" is undoubtedly minor key Altman-which may prove to be a strength among audiences unwilling to put in the effort on some of the maverick director's more challenging works. Despite the inherent racial charge in the plotline, this is a film which eschews big themes and great social topics in favor of the magic of everyday life. When Dutton is taken into custody, a bass-obsessed arresting officer (played with panache by that reliable old pro Ned Beatty) vouches for his innocence by saying, with hilarious simplicity, that he knows Dutton couldn't have done something so terrible because "I fished with him." In the sly comic valentine that is the world of "Cookie's Fortune," such a simple declaration of faith in uncomplicated human decency isn't satirized, it's celebrated.    Starring Glenn Close and Charles Dutton. Directed by Robert Altman. Produced by Robert Altman, Etchie Stroh, James McLindon and David Levy. Comedy/drama. An October release. Rated PG-13 for the depiction of a violent act and for sensuality. Running time: 117 min.
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