Cookie's Fortune Brings Small Town Living Alive

Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Charles S. Dutton, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Courtney B. Vance, Donald Moffat, Lyle Lovett, Danny Durst. Directed by Robert Altman. Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (widescreen), 1.33:1 (pan&scan). Dolby Digital 5.1. 118 minutes. 1999. USA Home Entertainment 0518. PG-13. $24.98.

This stylish and beguiling, albeit shadowed, comedy about an incident in a small Southern town is far smarter than its idiotic title might suggest. There is indeed a character named Cookie, an old lady (played with gritty directness by Patricia Neal) who sorely misses her deceased husband and decides one day that she really would rather be with him. While she does leave a nice house, which becomes the focal point of events, the twist on this tale concerns not fortune and greed so much as self-consciousness, obsession, and delusion.

Those three qualities form the character of Camille, one of Cookie's nieces, who carries on—at least in her own mind—a noble Southern tradition of propriety and place. Glenn Close's single-minded, iron-willed Camille is matched by half-a-dozen other engaging, credible characterizations that add up to superb theater. As foil and irritant to Camille is Emma (Liv Tyler), the free-spirited (Camille would say wayward) daughter of Camille's simple-minded sister, Cora (Julianne Moore). In the middle—caught there, as it turns out, when Camille makes the old woman's suicide look like murder—is Cookie's longtime black helper Willis, played with patience and grace by Charles S. Dutton.

Robert Altman's droll, edgy direction allows the tale to unfold in its own good time without losing its narrative focus or picaresque charm. But not to be undervalued is the sheer magnetism of the richly-hued DVD video transfer. Appurtenances of small-town life—street scenes, rooms, dress—express a palpable realism. Similarly, the surround soundtrack achieves an aural depth, with minute attention to detail, that puts the viewer right on Cookie's doorstep—a wonderful vantage point from which to savor this off-beat slice of life.