Southern comfort

Altman plays it for warm-but-warped laughs in his latest effort.

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Holly Springs, Miss., is a town full of secrets, both great and small. But in Cookie’s Fortune, this isn’t seen as a good or bad thing, just a way of life.

Written by Anne Rapp and directed with a laid-back grace by Robert Altman, Cookie’s Fortune falls somewhere between screwball comedy and Southern gothic. Although revealing what’s hidden is one of its primary motifs, the film is played on a very human scale, free of the usual histrionics associated with those styles.

Which doesn’t mean that Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) isn’t the closest thing Holly Springs has to a true diva. As the film opens on Good Friday, Camille is directing the final rehearsal of a church production sure to draw crowds: Salomé starring her sister, Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore), as the beheading seductress.

Cookie’s Fortune is a series of interwoven pas de deux, and the relationship between the self-righteous, manipulative Camille and the browbeaten, ethereal Cora is one of the most complex and slippery – the sight of them kneeling in prayer at their side-by-side twin beds speaks volumes.

The sisters don’t show a fraction of the love expressed between their elderly aunt, Jewel Mae Orcutt aka Cookie (Patricia Neal), and Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), her caretaker and companion. What at first seems like a Driving Miss Daisy scenario unfolds into something richer and more unexpected, especially considering the matter-of-fact racial segregation of this sleepy community.

During the holiday weekend, Cookie’s beloved grandniece, Emma (Liv Tyler), returns to town and promptly finds herself locking lips with her ex, Jason (Chris O’Donnell), the town’s newest – and none-too-swift – sheriff’s deputy. Their professional and personal lives intersect when Cookie is discovered dead in what appears to be a botched robbery, and Willis is arrested. A coolly efficient police investigator (Courtney B. Vance) and smug crime scene technician (Matt Malloy) arrive in town to clear things up, but can’t quite make sense of the peculiarities of the place or its residents, who are so much in their own groove that the outside world doesn’t seem to exist.

Although Cookie’s Fortune isn’t Robert Altman at his most biting, it is a most pleasurable meal with a distinctive flavor: a farce that unfolds with the slow, sweet pace of poured molasses.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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