After the mis-step of his John Grisham adaptation The Gingerbread Man, veteran director Robert Altman changes tack once again with this wonderfully light comedy of manners. Written by experienced script supervisor Anne Rapp, Cookie's Fortune succeeds as a leisurely piece of cinematic storytelling. The 'murder' mystery and the enthusiastic staging of Salome by Camille's am-dram group move the narrative along, but the whole film is really just an excuse to paint an affectionate portrait of a community in the Deep South.
It's certainly a benign vision of Mississippi life. There are no bigoted rednecks here, just blacks and whites living in perfect harmony. And if a black man like Willis does end up in a sheriff's cell, the guard will play Scrabble with him to help pass the time of day. In Holly Springs, it's the democratic past-time of fishing which is held up as proof of a man's ultimate reliability. The local policeman is convinced that Willis is innocent simply because he's gone fishing with him.
Altman has often worked with extensive casts and it pays rich dividends again in Cookie's Fortune. Particularly memorable are Dutton's supremely amiable Willis and Close's domineering Camille. But even tiny roles like Lyle Lovett's taciturn fish trader are played with distinction.
Elegantly photographed and boasting an atmospheric score from Dave Stewart, Cookie's Fortune finds its comedy in simple human interactions, and above all in the contrast between the theatrical shenanigans of Camille and her sister Cora (Moore) and the phlegmatic understatement of the rest of the town. It's about the ties that connect people in ways they never imagined - blood itself is the recurrent motif here - and is Altman's most compassionate work in years.
A return to form for the 74-year-old Altman. Ostensibly a murder mystery, this shaggy-dog story is a lightly farcical account of small-town life in the Deep South. Made with a real lightness of touch, this is definitely one to savour.