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Cookie's Fortune  

Cookie`s Fortune is a rarity: a comedy which finds the right tone. It contains scenes which could have been played over the top, or taken too seriously. However, in this case, you can laugh a lot and yet still feel this stuff is plausible (and no doubt has happened, considering the strangeness of the real world.)

The story takes place in a small fishing town. The focus begins with Cookie, an old lady played by Patricia Neal, and Willis, a man who lives in her house and takes care of her, played by Charles S. Dutton. Their relationship is warm and amusing, with little in-jokes that add to the texture of their friendship. For years, Cookie has been widowed, and is now so lonely for her spouse that one day she decides to end it all by shooting herself with one of her husband`s guns. The scene is dealt with very nicely, and we realize that she is indeed happy over a possible reunion with her husband.

Since we all know what really happened, the charm is not in the suspense, but in the wackiness of the characters. Along the way we meet some strange people, including Ned Beatty as a cop obsessed with all things fish, and who knows Willis couldn`t have committed a murder.... for they`ve fished together many times. Liv Tyler drops in as a family friend of Cookie and Willis, and has hundreds of outstanding parking tickets, no doubt due to her habit of parking on the sidewalk. Lyle Lovett plays a fisherman who lusts for Tyler. And I could go on.....

What`s great about this movie is its representation of small-town life. All the character behave as if they`ve lived here before the movie began, and will keep on going even as the story ends. One aspect involves the unspoken trust between the characters. For example, the treatment of Dutton as he is held in a cell awaiting trial. The officers play Scrabble and talk about fish with him. They try to act as if it is no big deal, and we notice that the cell door is wide open at all times. Yet no mention is made about the possibility of escape. Willis could easily walk out that door if he wanted to, and if the cops were really concerned about him, they`d lock the door before he could escape. But Willis stays, and the cops treat him like a visitor. This represents both the decency inherent in Willis, and the cops` trust in that decency. Sure, the charge is entirely false, Willis knows that, the cops know that, we know that. But they all must make do with their situation, and hope for the best. No sense in jeopardizing their credibility.

Robert Altman has mellowed a lot since his glory days in the 1970`s. M*A*S*H was a brilliantly pitiless vision of surgeons caught in the insanity of war. Both Nashville and The Player were savage critiques of success. And my personal favourite, Short Cuts, was an epic of dysfunction in suburban L.A. All of these films were dark, and occasionally mean-spirited. Here, however, he relies less on his cruelty and more on the human comedy of the situation. Granted, old habits do die hard, and I do believe a few audience members would be a little perplexed by the fate of Glen Close`s character. Sure, she is a bigoted, self-indulgent snob, but does she really deserve what eventually happens to her? My opinion perhaps doesn`t count, since some of the audience members I was with seemed quite pleased at the unfairness. Her character`s dim-witted niece, played by Julianne Moore, is picked on almost as much, especially in a priceless shot during a conversation with Chris O`Donnell`s character.

But Altman still does a fine job of generating life and laughs. Cookie`s Fortune is not Altman`s best or most profound, but its fun makes up for that in spades.

David Macdonald

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