Whether Robert Altman tackles drama or comedy, his vision of the world invariably ends up seeming bleak. For thirty-five years, Altman has painted a rich canvas in which people are always disconnected from each other and from themselves.
They love, scheme, murder, act upon a dozen, obscure impulses all at once – but get no closer to self-knowledge or redemption.
Altman has always been, at heart, a fatalist. He portrays social systems at their most entropic and vicious point, and he views most human relationships as an essentially nasty scramble for domination. When a boozy torch singer in Short Cuts (1993) wailed that she was a "Prisoner of Life", she spoke for all of Altman's lonely, doomed protagonists.
In the context of the director's career, Cookie's Fortune comes as a welcome shock. Much of the film is typical Altman territory: old age, death, deceit, family secrets, community complicities. But the tone is unexpectedly positive, lighthearted and, for the most part, compassionate.
As usual, Altman ranges over a wide social canvas. Everyone in the small community of Holly Springs is interconnected in some way, whether through family ties, mutual favours and understandings, past or present intimacies.
The gregarious, self-styled sophisticate, Camille (Glenn Close), directs her vacant sister, Cora (Julianne Moore), in a local production of Wilde's Salome. Their feisty young niece, Emma (Liv Tyler), returns to town to make waves. As the story begins, warm-hearted Willis (Charles S. Dutton) checks in on the elderly, local matriarch in his care, Cookie (Patricia Neal).
Like Robert Duvall's The Apostle (1997), the essential, spectacular plot events in Cookie's Fortune happen at the start; the rest of the film simply and deliciously unravels the consequences and mysteries of that initial disturbance of the peace. And for once in an Altman movie, not everything veers towards tragic error, misunderstanding, cowardice or solitude.
Texture and atmosphere are everything in this film. In many ways, it is a far more successful version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), which was bungled so completely on screen by Clint Eastwood. Altman and writer Anne Rapp – whose early credits include an involvement with the remarkable Handgun (1983) – revel in subverting the genre of Southern Gothic mystery, paradoxically filling it with sunlight and good cheer.
Altman captures perfectly the sleepy rhythms and eccentric lifestyles of this town – and his serendipitous way with a running gag has never been finer. Although some critics keep invoking the director's characteristic stylistic touches – overlapping dialogue, loose improvisation, a roving camera – they have failed to notice that, since Kansas City (1996), Altman has significantly sharpened and refined his approach.
In a more classically minded fashion, Altman these days hones in the telling line or gesture, bringing out the subtle ironies and slowly unfolding enigmas of his story. The actors respond well to this combination of freedom and control. Everyone in the ensemble is superb, arranged like distinct musical voices: histrionic Close; youthfully appealing Tyler; mysterious Moore; stolid Ned Beatty; lanky Lyle Lovett.
Funny, absorbing and wise, Cookie's Fortune is a delight.
© Adrian Martin June 1999