Sunday, June 21, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta)Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)

[This is going to be a little on the short side because Netflix does not carry this film on DVD, and my VHS tapes are in storage...therefore I had to do this whole thing based on memory.]

Many would consider Robert Altman's best modern film, and the premier ensemble piece he created at the end of his career to be 2001's Gosford Park. However, I feel like his gem of a film from 1999 Cookie's Fortune has been overlooked long enough. Here is a film that is charming and warm and smile-inducing throughout; it's a film more concerned with the connectivity of townsfolk than with a murder that takes place in said town; it's a place where a mans innocence is determined because the local sheriff has fished with him before...and well, if you've fished with the man, then there's no possible way he could be maniacal enough to kill somebody.

The story is typical Altman: a horde of characters run into each other in the small town of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) is a brute of a woman, and the stateswoman of the small town...well that is after Cookie (Patricia Neal) is murdered. There's Emma (Liv Tyler) Camille's niece who is starring alongside her slow-witted mom Cora (Julianne Moore) in a Camille's production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome". There's also the greenhorn deputy Jason (Chris O' Donnell) who is in love with Emma, Jason's superior's played by Ned Beatty and Charles S. Dutton (in a role that steals every scene), and a bevy of local characters...and I do mean characters. They all converge in scene after refreshing scene that seems so comfortable in the hands of a master like Altman. It just seems like he's having a lot of fun here.

This isn't a potboiler, however, as we know pretty much from the onset that Camille is an ogre of a woman, and that she is the one behind Cookie's murder. However, Altman doesn't concern himself with the boring details of a cliche murder story, he's more concerned with what makes the people tick in this small town. He's also not concerned with making Camille an overtly evil woman, she's just too audacious for her own good (example: she wants a co-writer credit next to Wilde's name on the playbill), which is her downfall as she proceeds to destroy and alienate everyone around her. She's almost comical in her evil so that when she does get her comeuppance, it's a crowd-cheering moment. And even though there's a murder to be solved, Altman has more fun being sardonic (there's a sign in the town of Holly Springs that reads: On this site in 1897 nothing happened.") and kind of wondering around the town of Holly Springs to see what he can catch a glimpse of next.

Altman creates Holly Springs into a specific place, too. I love films that take me to a place I've never had the opportunity to see. I felt the authenticity of this small Mississippi town where fishing validates how good of a person you are. It reminded me of my favorite film from last year Shotgun Stories, even though the stories are complete opposites, the sense of place and the authenticity of that place is palpable; you really do feel like you've been transported to another time and place.

Cookie's Fortune came amid a somewhat mediocre point in Altman's oeuvre. Up until this film he had released: Ready to Wear, Kansas City, and The Gingerbread Man. All three were less than memorable films, especially considering the man had come of two of his most critically successful films since the 70's: The Player and Short Cuts. Cookie's Fortune was a return to the formula that worked so well for Altman early in his career. The man released so many movies, that like Clint Eastwood, it's easy for some of them to be forgotten for the simple fact that he has such a mass quantity of work. I think Cookie's Fortune is one of his best modern films, more enjoyable than Short Cuts, and a better ensemble piece than Gosford Park. It takes the viewer to a simple, specific place and permeates the screen with its relentless warmth. You cannot help but feel happy after watching this movie. It's truly one of the forgotten gems of 1999, and of Altman's career.


  1. Not a forgotten film for me, Kevin. I used to live a couple of hours south of Holly Springs (I don't live all that much further away now). It is indeed a real town, and I've been inside First Presbyterian's sanctuary, where the play is performed. I used to know Milton Winter, the pastor who is thanked in the credits.

    Perhaps because of this, and the fact that Altman doesn't fall TOO deeply into stereotype (like another hero of mine, John Sayles, does in "Honeydripper") "Cookies Fortune" is a personal favorite of mine.

  2. Rick:

    Hooray! Another fan of this fine film. I'm glad it's not a forgotten film for you, either. I think it's easily one of Altman's most enjoyable films, and I like how you mention that he doesn't allow the stereotypes to morph into parody like Sayles' film does (and indeed it does). That's wonderful that you've been to that sanctuary. I really need to visit the south...I mean we have history here on the West coast (the Oregon Trail!), but you guys have History there in the south.

    As always...thanks for stopping by Rick.