Robert Altman's great ensemble films have always been peopled with characters whose irreverently told stories -- comic and dramatic -- have been colored with a hint of the director's barely submerged outrage. He took aim at war's horrors with "M*A*S*H," the corruption of the entertainment industry with "Nashville" and "The Player," and contemporary dysfunction with "Short Cuts."
"Cookie's Fortune," Altman's impressive return to form after such half-baked efforts as "The Gingerbread Man," "Kansas City" and "Ready to Wear," indeed takes on a serious subject, that of the casual racism that continues to rear its head with alarming regularity in the American South of the '90s.
But the tone of his storytelling here, in comparison to that of his earlier work, is as mellow as the bourbon always in stock on the shelves of a Mississippi store, where a sign at the cash register assures visitors that "on this site in 1857, nothing happened." It's as relaxed as the long, sunny afternoons given to the pleasures of rolling up one's pants legs and getting down to the important business of fishing off a dock on a lake just far enough from the pretty town square in Holly Springs.
And the picture's gently expressed vibe, the feeling that life will go on pretty much as before, even after old folks die and family secrets are spilled like so much blood, yields an atmosphere as comfortable as the rambling, lived-in antebellum mansion occupied by friendly matriarch Aunt Cookie. The widow, still mourning for her late husband Buck, is played to perfection by Patricia Neal, absent far too long from the big screen.
The plot, built on a richly nuanced script by newcomer Anne Rapp, nevertheless is far from lethargic. In short order we're introduced to an intriguing cast of Southern gothic characters.
Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty), a good-old-boy cop who's smarter than he lets on, has his own unique test for separating the guilty from the innocent, and it has everything to do with catfish. Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), the extroverted, eccentric director of a local church's production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome," delightedly instructs one struggling thespian on the acting method: "I want you to be organic. I want you to realize the moment." Camille's mousy sister Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore), habitually dominated by her older sibling, plays the revenge-minded harlot who asks for the head of John the Baptist.
Also integral to the plot are the magnetic Charles S. Dutton as Willis Richland, Cookie's hard-drinking but loyal and affectionate handyman; Liv Tyler as Cora's daughter, Emma, a vivacious, foot-loose young woman whose failure to follow Camille's dictates on ladylike behavior drives her aunt batty; Chris O'Donnell as bumbling deputy Jason Brown, Emma's boyfriend; and Lyle Lovett as Manny Hood, a catfish supplier whose quiet nature belies a lecherous yen for young Emma.
The action begins in earnest when Camille stumbles upon a dead body (we'd rather not reveal the details) and decides to rearrange the evidence to create the illusion of a murder scene. "Nobody in this family commits suicide," she explains to the kowtowed Cora. "Only crazy people commit suicide."
Willis is quickly named as a suspect by investigators who have gathered absolutely nothing to support that conclusion. He whiles away his time in a jail cell, sipping soft drinks and playing games with pals Emma, Lester and attorney Jack Palmer (Donald Moffat). Camille, meanwhile, puts the finishing touches on her play and finds herself on the wrong end of an inadvertent betrayal as the truth about the corpse is gradually revealed.
A bluesy soundtrack, composed by ex-Eurythmics co-leader Dave Stewart, adds to the authenticity of the film, which includes Memphis musicians Rufus Thomas and Ruby Wilson in small roles as crusty club owner Theo Johnson and saucy singer Josie Martin, respectively.
There's a scene at the end of "Cookie's Fortune" during which the now-haunted Camille begins to cave in to her various demons. Close lets loose, indulging herself far too much in histrionics. It's a sour coda to an otherwise sweet symphony of small-town manners, a performance deftly handled by a director who ought to always insist on working with source material this rich.