Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:57 - Released 4/9/99

Everyone loves a good murder mystery. And with a distinguished director like Robert Altman at the helm, and with talent like Glenn Close, Patricia Neal, Charles Dutton, Ned Beatty, and Julianne Moore, it would be hard to miss. And Cookie's Fortune doesn't miss. For screenwriter Anne Rapp, who has been credited as script supervisor for a string of excellent and well-known films like The Color Purple, The Accidental Tourist, The American President, and That Thing You Do!, this film marks her freshman effort as sole writer, and she has woven a tightly-knit and truly engaging story, with real characters and a hometown feel brought to life effectively by Altman and his talented actors.

Cookie's real name is Jewel Mae Orcutt (Neal), an aging Mississippi widow whose senility matches her love for her dead husband Buck. She has a true friend in Willis Richland (Dutton), who takes care of her, but she misses Buck so much she decides to join him by using one of his many prized firearms. She leaves Willis a note, lies down on her bed, and shoots herself.

The first person to find Cookie is her niece, Camille (Close), an annoying busybody who is always embarrassed by Cookie's crazy ways. She is generally appalled and sets out to avoid humiliation by making the case look like a robbery/murder. She takes the gun from Cookie's dead hand, eats the note, snatches some valuables from their places, and breaks open the glass on Buck's gun cabinet. Then she goes outside and deposits the gun in the bushes. Witnessing this whole charade is Camille's slow-witted sister Cora (Moore), but Camille is certain she will have no problem coaching Cora about what to say, since Cora is decidedly suggestible.

When the local sherriff (Danny Darst) begins to investigate, aided by deputies Lester (Beatty) and Jason (Chris O'Donnell), the only fingerprints they discover are those of their close friend and fishing buddy, Willis. They know him well enough to know he's innocent, but they must take him into custody as a suspect. Sharing his cell out of protest is Emma (Liv Tyler), Cookie's granddaughter and Cora's illegitimate child, a vagrant and petty criminal who seems to be the only one other than Willis who really cared about the old lady. But as the investigation proceeds and the facts come out, Camille's plot proves too well-conceived for her own good.

In the present age of high-tech, low-touch films, Cookie's Fortune is a nice break. It is an excellent marriage of a solid script and quality performances, richly textured and steeped in character. Its characters, in fact, are what make it so enjoyable; Rapp's story is clever, but Altman's ability to create such an authentic-feeling community is worth great praise. All the actors give solid performances without pretense, crafting characters who are distinct and believable. The setting (the small town of Holly Springs, Mississippi) is rich with sun-dappled rivers, bluesy background music, and palpable heat even as early as Easter time, which is when the action occurs. In Cookie's Fortune, we have a rarity — an unpretentious film that impresses us not with flash and volume, but with substance. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive