By Owen Gleiberman
April 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

When Robert Altman’s mojo is working, you drink in the atmosphere of his films with a richer, headier feeling of intoxication than you do at anyone else’s. In Nashville, The Player, or (on a more trivial scale) The Gingerbread Man, Altman’s gaze is amused, acerbic, compassionate, playful, and merciless — all at the same time. Cookie’s Fortune, the director’s latest, is an agreeable minor lark, a Southern gothic mystery-farce in which a dotty old widow, the parchment-skinned matriarch Aunt Cookie (Patricia Neal), grabs a pistol out of her gun cabinet, places a pillow on her head, and proceeds to blow her brains out. She’s discovered by one of her nieces, the repressed, theatrical spinster Camille (Glenn Close), who is so terrified of family scandal — and so eager to get her claws on Cookie’s assets — that she frantically makes the suicide look like a murder.

Cookie’s Fortune is a wittily diagrammed portrait of a small town shaken to its roots by this deceptive calamity. The movie, though, never really becomes more than a diagram. The fabled Altman atmosphere fails to jell, and that, I think, is because the majority of the actors appear to be simply playing their roles rather than living them.

With no likely suspects, the cops seize upon Cookie’s live-in manservant, the loyal, make-no-waves Willis (Charles S. Dutton), and toss him in jail. The casual racism is given an overt showcase, yet I wish that Dutton, a powerful actor, had been given another dimension or two to dramatize. The character’s benign, courtly reticence is the sort that inspires reviewers to write things like ”Charles S. Dutton gives a performance of immense dignity.” It’s really Glenn Close’s show. She’s playing one of those dainty, sexless destroyers Altman has nothing but contempt for, yet she has more life than anyone else in the movie. In her, the Old South rears its head and then does a quick, spectacular fade. B-