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Saturday, Feb. 12, 2000


Mississippi burning with goodness

After decades of telling us how the world is full of malevolent, petty and detestable people, Robert Altman has come out with a film so sweet the viewer is left wondering whether the director was suffering from schizophrenia that only afflicts the very talented.

"Cookie's Fortune" combines all that is signature Altman: the knack for juggling many characters and their lives, keeping them suspended mid-air until the chosen moment when he lets them all drop gracefully into the palm of his hand; his intuition for smelling out the dark side of anything seemingly manicured or pristine, probing all over the story before hitting upon secret, festering wounds. However, he takes it all and runs full speed to a conclusion entirely different from what we have come to expect from the director.

"Cookie's Fortune" is imbued with idyllic sentiments, straightforwardness and a good feeling spread all around. The backdrop is the small town of Holly Springs, Miss., the kind of laid-back Southern community that a younger Altman would have dissected in 10 minutes to reveal perverts and KKK conspiracies. Not so this time -- the Holly Springs reflected in his lens is sunny and bright and jumpin' with catfish, peopled by folks bursting with good ole Southern hospitality.

The sole exception is Camilla Dixon (Glenn Close), the undisputed figure of (self-appointed) authority within a 5-mile radius. Camilla is the kind of woman found smack in the middle of any big event, wagging a finger and barking orders. What better person to play her than Close, who fits into the role like feet into a pair of well-worn stilettos -- vicious to the onlooker but comfy for the wearer. Playing Camilla's flaky sister Cora is Julianne Moore, who just gets better with each picture. Cora spends her life crushed under her sister's weighty thumb and indeed, Moore's performance (and wardrobe) evokes images of a butterfly: fluttering, helpless, mindless.

Contrasting sharply with Cora is her daughter Emma, played by Liv Tyler who cut off her hair just for this role and goes through the entire picture in overalls. See, this is what you can say when you're Robert Altman: "Oh and by the way, chop off that gorgeous, luxurious hair of yours and change into these baggy pants." But who cares? Tyler looks like she's striding down a runway no matter what she wears.

And now for the title role: "Cookie" as she is known to her loved ones, is really Jewel Mae Orcutt (Patricia Neal): an irascible, pipe-smoking old lady still pining for her late husband. She misses him so much in fact, that one morning she writes a note of farewell to her housemate Willis (Charles S. Dutton) and blows her brains out. Cookie's niece Camilla happens upon the body and decides to make it look like murder. She eats the note, reconstructs the crime scene and snags some personal valuables while she's at it before calling the sheriff's (Ned Beatty) office. Willis is soon arrested on circumstantial evidence.

So far, the stage is set for gloom and doom. The Deep South, the death of a wealthy woman, the "black" housemate accused of murder and local sheriff boys with big guns. Add them altogether and what you get is a blues song, one of those hopelessly sad numbers by Muddy Waters. But Altman swerves the story onto another track. Willis is arrested, but his cell is unlocked. Emma moves in to keep him company, the sheriff brings out a scrabble game and they all sit down over pie (baked by the sheriff's wife) and coffee.

When a police investigator (Courtney B. Vance) arrives from the city, he is at first completely baffled but gradually joins everyone else in the conviction that Willis is not guilty. In the meantime, Camilla disregards police orders and sets herself up in Cookie's house, certain that as next of kin, it and whatever else Cookie had is legally hers.

"Cookie's Fortune" is actually a family movie, with Altman showing us his version of the All-American Family. The idea that family members should be based, not on blood relationships but personal choice, is an old one. But that the choice could transcend race in the Deep South, is revolutionary. One wonders what the reaction to the film was like over there -- this pic may not carry as much political ammo as, say, "Amistad," but the message rings with a lot more sincerity.

This is Altman at his warmest and most optimistic and the world he creates is worthy of "The Beach" tag: "Somewhere on earth, it must exist."

"Cookie's Fortune" opens Feb. 19 at Cine Saison in Shibuya.

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