Cookie's Fortune unfolds over an eventful Easter weekend in the small town of Holly Springs, Mississippi. The town residents are peaceful, kind folk -- with the exception of Camille Dixon -- a pushy theatre director with an incredibly shy younger sister, Cora, whose estranged daughter Emma has just returned to town. On the heels of her latest play, Camille is shocked to discover that her Aunt Jewel Mae "Cookie" Orcutt has committed suicide. Terrified at the thought of how this will tarnish the family name, she eats the suicide note to make it look like a burglary. This set-up leads the police to one main suspect, Willis Richland, who also happens to be Cookie's best friend. Although the rest of the town is convinced Willis didn't commit the crime, an outside investigator isn't so sure. As Easter Sunday and opening night of the play arrive, the truth comes out, revealing more secrets than anyone could have possibly imagined. Written by
What would it have been like had Tennessee Williams -- for some unfathomable reason -- been hired to write a script for "The Andy Griffith Show?" This is hardly a pressing question for either amusement or intellectual debate, but the answer would surely be something very much like Robert Altman's COOKIE'S FORTUNE.
This is undoubtedly Altman's most accessible and likable effort. It is set in Holly Springs, Mississippi, but it could just as easily be Mayberry, North Carolina. Both are in a fantasy world just north of Sitcomville and across the ridge from Capratown. In Altman fashion, Holly Springs is populated with variety of oddball folk, but in contradiction to Altman tradition, they mostly tend to be free of cynicism and malice. Andy, Opie, Barney and Aunt Bee would feel right at home. Indeed, there is even a town jail where the cell doors are left unlocked, all the better to allow visitors to come and go as they please.
The hypothetical contribution by Tennessee Williams is nonetheless apparent as well. There is a murder mystery, a suicide, a bit of gore, a dash of sex, some racial consciousness and Glenn Close, whose character might be a second cousin to Blanche DuBois. But these elements of dark and twisted madness aren't all that removed from the cheerful eccentricity that is a trademark of fictional smalltown America. As such, COOKIE'S FORTUNE falls somewhere between SHADOW OF DOUBT and THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN in its representation of bucolic life; there is a cheerful silliness to the characters, but tragedy darkens the edges just a tad.
No one would ever accuse Altman of being the sentimental type. His screen career has consisted largely of taking pot shots at the American landscape, aiming to reveal hypocrisy behind everything from patriotism to idealism, with his preferred vehicle of deconstruction being the conventions of various movie genres. He has taken a wrecking ball to everything from the backstage musical to film noir to westerns to sci-fi. Yet he approaches the Capraesque vision of smalltown American with a gentle good humor, refraining from indulging in either parody or satire. COOKIES FORTUNE is probably the only Altman film where the characters are characters, i.e., loopy individuals, not archetypes to be debunked or mocked. I'm an admirer of Altman's films, but I have to admit that I am hard pressed to think of any other instance where I felt actual affection for any of his characters.
Alas, Altman's visit to Holly Springs is no doubt a side trip in the director's journey from one "important" film to the next. A chance to stretch his legs a bit before getting back to the serious business of showing how corrupt the world is. That's a shame, because Holly Springs is a right nice little place to visit.
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