Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cookie's Fortune

dir. Robert Altman

Just another holiday in the "clink."

January 16, 2007 - 35mm/IFC Center

Anne Rapp wrote back-to-back Robert Altman pictures. In 1999 came Cookie’s Fortune. In 2000 came Dr. T and the Women. Both movies are failures. With that said, Dr. T boasts a positively bonkers and somewhat daring ending, which almost makes it worth seeing. Cookie’s Fortune boasts Charles S. Dutton. Needless to say, Ms. Rapp has nary written a picture since.

Anne Rapp wrote Cookie’s Fortune through a looking glass into 1930's Hollywood. An update on the screwball comedy, Robert Altman is the perfect man to pervert such a genre, dead or otherwise. Yet, there is no subversion or perversion in sight, it simply borrows from the least the genre has to offer. Rapp’s script could easily have been tossed aside in the heyday of Cary Grant’s goofy glasses and
dead aunts. Frank Capra would have yawned at Ms. Rapp’s hijinks and opted for Clark Gable erecting the Walls of Jericho instead.

In order to “update” the genre, the stage is set in Mississippi, The South, where people are dumber and more gullible, right? Their funny accents allow for screwballiness of epic proportions. Glenn Close buzzes around a house quickly eating a suicide note. Liv Tyler parks up on the sidewalk enough to the point she has a dashboard coated with hundreds of parking tickets. Later on she exclaims she has something like $264 in tickets overdue. Only $264?! This must be 1938, when parking tickets were a nickel! What is this movie?! Where is Robert Altman through all of this?

The actors play the comedy straight, and by straight, I mean stiff. Altman’s comedy must have come by way of his son, Stephen Altman, the production designer. Set around the Easter holiday, the movie is an April shower, or torrential downpour, of pastels. Glenn Close and Julianne Moore are just buried in pink and powder blue light, blossomy fabric. Yes, Julianne Moore is in this picture. It was the same year she gave two of the best performances of the year, with The End of the Affair and Magnolia. In Cookie’s Fortune she plays the half-wit sister to Glenn Close’s maniacal playwriting cupcake face.

The two sisters happen upon the dead body of their aunt, Cookie (when living she is played by the marvelous Patricia Neal). In order to avoid the shame of a suicide in their family, Camille (Glenn Close) decides to cover it up by making it look like a robbery-homicide. This results in Cookie’s best friend, Willis, being tossed in prison. Willis is played by powerhouse Charles S. Dutton. For this role, S. Dutton deflates into a sweet as pie seemingly sexless neighbor, and he manages quite well. I say “sexless,” because while every character seems to have had a spouse or other, Dutton seems blissfully sterile. Now there’s something from 30’s comedy, a sexless, non-threatening, wise, kindly southern black man. Huzzah Ms. Rapp, you captured the 30’s spirit there, right? (wrong!). Still, Dutton shines, a breath of fresh air, as he manages to be the least buffoonish of the bunch. He makes for a strong base as the straight man, and his banter with Ned Beatty is actually quite fun when you cut out every time Beatty is forced to express Willis’ innocence by saying, “I know he’s innocent. We go fishing together.”

Mr. Altman has a way of blending humor and melancholy unlike any other filmmaker. When it works, enough praise cannot be pig-piled any higher. In this case, he is crippled by a script written in a genre that bakes melancholy and despair in an oven of crazy. When screwball comedy worked, it worked from the inside out. Plagued by The Depression and War, Cookie’s Fortune is not. By taking the screwy and attempting to layer in some brand of seriousness this picture mostly falls flat in the mud. Only Charles S. Dutton remains afoot, slowly but surely, rounding the bend, Wild Turkey in hand.

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