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Oscar material ...'Cookie's Fortune' confirms style

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"Cookie's Fortune"

Directed by: Robert Altman

Starring: Charles S. Dutton, Liv Tyler, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Chris O'Donnell, Patricia Neal

Rated: PG-13

Robert Altman is one of the few truly independent auteurs on the Hollywood scene.

Woody Allen also comes to mind, but writer/director/actor/editor John Sayles is closer in style and mood to Altman.

All three of these folks make great films and have very strong personal visions of their art.

That kind of thing is getting increasingly rare in corporate Hollywood nowadays where test audiences ultimately decide how a film is assembled and big company product placements, along with MTV-ready soundtracks, are driving forces that get as much consideration as casting, plot and character development.

That makes it all the more refreshing when an Altman or Sayles puts out a great (usually low-budget) piece of work that one can tell comes straight from the heart.

Altman wrote his first screenplay in 1948, directed his first film in 1957 and then turned his talents to television for a decade.

He came back to film in 1968 with "Countdown" a gripping tale about astronauts and their families preparing for the first moon landing.

Next came the quirky "Brewster McCloud" and then, in 1970, Altman had his breakthrough film with the commercially successful and critically acclaimed "M*A*S*H."

Since then Altman has given us some big movies ("The Player," "Short Cuts"), some little ones ("Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," "Vincent and Theo") and always managed to stay true to himself.

His latest effort, "Cookie's Fortune" ranks among his best work and if there is any justice in Hollywood (what am I saying?) the film should find itself loaded down with Oscar nominations next February. It's early in the year, I know, but this is the best film of 1999, as of mid-April.

Cookie played by Patricia Neal in an all too rare screen appearance is an eccentric, well-off old gal who lives with her longtime handyman and confidant, Willis, played by Charles S. Dutton. Forget TV's "Roc," Dutton started out as a serious stage actor and is a force to be reckoned with here.

On the day before Easter, Cookie who has been getting noticeably more eccentric of late decides it's time to join her beloved husband in the sweet by-and-by.

She takes her life and leaves her friend Willis a note saying that everything's OK.

And everything would be OK, except for Cookie's nieces, the impossibly prissy Camille and the somewhat dull-witted Cora. They discover Cookie's body, and Camille is appalled at what people might think. Only crazy people commit suicide, and certainly no one in this family is crazy.

She literally eats the suicide note and sets about making the whole thing look like a robbery/murder. All this while she's trying to direct the church Easter play, Oscar Wilde's "Salome," which she herself has re-worked, giving herself a co-writer's credit.

As in any apparent murder, the police need a suspect.

Since his prints are all over the house and the gun (he'd cleaned Cookie's large pistol collection only the night before) they are forced to take Willis into custody. The local cops know Willis is innocent, but the outside "experts" are out to prove otherwise.

When Willis gets thrown in jail, Cookie's great-niece Emma, played with wacky abandon by Liv Tyler, turns herself in (she's got 200 some odd dollars in parking tickets, a town record) so she can share the cell and keep Willis company. She also keeps company with one of the slightly dumb young cops, played by Chris O'Donnell.

As the investigation wears on, the truth keeps coming closer and closer to the fore, and along the way we learn a great many secrets about nearly every one of the townsfolk.

Altman's character development is as good as it gets: We're interested in these people and relish every bit of new information that comes along.

As in all of his finest work, Altman uses the ensemble cast approach and, to a person, each actor is at the top of his/her form. Besides best picture, direction and screenplay nods Glenn Close and Charles S. Dutton deserve best actress and actor nominations.

If you're an Altman fan you won't want to miss "Cookie's Fortune." Even if you're not, you still should see this film, which I'm confident will end up on hundreds of "Best of 1999" lists at year's end.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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