Babes Off Broadway

Robert Altman serves up a meringue of a movie.

ROBERT ALTMAN HAS made some of the darkest, most devastating American movies ever made—movies like Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Player. But I guess everyone—even Altman—needs a break from time to time. His new movie, Cookie's Fortune, is an airy pastry of a movie, kind of a big meringue without much pie underneath it. (Which is not entirely bad—in fact, the movie has a loose, hammy energy that's a lot of fun as it goes along.)

Cookie's Fortune

directed by Robert Altman

starring Patricia Neal, Glenn Close

opens April 9 at Guild 45th and Meridian

The titular Cookie is a dotty old Southern dame (played by Patricia Neal) with a great big house and a loyal friend named Willis (Charles Dutton), a middle-aged black man. When Cookie commits suicide due to either senility or grief, she's discovered by her estranged and snippy niece, Camille (Glenn Close). Determined not to let suicide taint the family name—one of those old-fashioned concerns that it's hard to believe even Southern spinsters still cling to—Camille changes the death scene so that it appears an intruder murdered Cookie. The ensuing investigation is a leisurely affair that allows the town's various quirky inhabitants to demonstrate their capacity for lovably colorful behavior.

When Willis becomes the only suspect, he's thrown in jail—but they don't bother closing the cell door, since no one seriously thinks he's guilty. To protest, Cookie's granddaughter Emma (Liv Tyler) demands that she be imprisoned as well—she is, after all, a real felon because of her 234 outstanding parking tickets. Meanwhile, Camille is directing a production of Oscar Wilde's Salome (suitably rewritten by herself, of course). She's cast her sister Cora (Julianne Moore) as Salome, and the slightly dim Cora tends to recite her lines as part of her everyday conversation. Since Emma and sheriff's deputy Jason (Chris O'Donnell) seem to be the only people in town under 35, they can't keep their hands off each other, even though they routinely bicker and spar. Police officer Lester (Ned Beatty) works fishing into every conversation, even in the thick of the investigation.

The whole cast wallows in all this eccentric Southern dialogue. The movie never works up much of sweat, but it achieves an amiable good cheer. Maybe there was supposed to be some significant contrast between Salome and the investigation, but it doesn't amount to much. Cookie's Fortune is like a good piece of community theater: Everyone knows everyone else, they're putting on a show, it amuses us for a couple of hours, and what more can we ask from it?

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