Robert Altman has always been a problem for me as a critic. Without question his masterpiece is the 1970 'M*A*S*H', an anarchic romp that violated every canon of good taste and traditional style. It had two brilliant comic actors -- Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland at the height of their careers -- happily destroying every single cliche about war that you can think of, and Altman showed a directorial mastery that could stage scenes and overlap dialogue in ways that had never been done before. In fact if you compare the finished film with the script he worked from -- a fine, though conventional, piece of work by Ring Lardner Jr., you'll see how a great director can transform the good into the sublime. M*A*S*H was -- and is-- one of the great films of all time, all those sexist jokes notwithstanding.
With his huge body of work since then, I find myself having to add qualifiers and 'yes,but's' to every one of them. 'The Long Goodbye' (1972) was a lovely, underappreciated comic mystery, again with Gould, and a brilliant cameo by Mark Rydell as a Jewish gang lord, but whose plot was too weak to sustain it. I liked, though not loved, 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller,' which was flawed by a needlessly meandering script. Certainly I'm in the minority on 'Nashville,' which in my view was a shallow, contrived exercise that -- among other faults -- had the worst country/western music ever written.
Over the next twenty years Altman seemed to focus on taking thin-to-nonexistent plots and seeing how far he could stretch them There have been a few high points -- 'The Player,' 'Short Cuts' -- and altogether too many low ones. Altman remains a filmmaker whose promise of greatness is continually weakened by his leaning too heavily on material that just can't sustain it. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that whatever power might reside in his material is vitiated by his treatment of it. He seems resolutely to want to drain his films of confrontation and power and replace those qualities with indirection. At times this works, but more often it just robs us of the ability to respond viscerally to his films.
Where does 'Cookie's Fortune' fit? Is it heresy to say that this is 'To Kill A Mockingbird' treated as comedy? In the small Mississippi town of Holly Springs an elderly widow, Jewel Mae Orcutt, known as Cookie (Patricia Neal, in a drawl so slow it seems to take her forever to get a sentence out), living with her memories and fantasies, and physically aging beyond comfort, decides to take her own life and rejoin her husband. Cookie's two nieces, Camille (Glenn Close in a performance so over the top it's reminiscent of her work as Cruella DeVille in '101 Dalmatians') and Cora (Julianne Moore as the quiet mouse who finds her voice through playing Salome in a church production of the Oscar Wilde play) and her grandniece Emma (Liv Tyler, nicely charming and cute and strong) are apparently her only living relatives.
Her only friend is her longtime companion Willis Richland, who lives on the property and just happens to be black (Charles S. Dutton, in a gorgeous performance that holds the film together simply by virtue of his warm and supportive bulk, his soft and knowing voice, and his long, limping walks through town).
But when the prim and proper Camille discovers Cookie's body, and Cookie's suicide note to her friend Willis, she a) rearranges things so it looks like murder, and b) swallows the suicide note, implicating Willis as the murderer. In a nice touch, the film gives us not a minute's worth of real fright for Willis; Lester the sheriff (Ned Beatty) knows Willis could not have done it. How come? "I've fished with him." Period. And the rest of the film simply sorts out relationships, gives poor Cora the chance to find her sensual side and become a true actress, punishes the bad Camille, and helps Willis and Emma to the happier futures they deserve.
Does it add up to very much? No. It's charming, it's nicely textured, but it's missing the overtones, the necessary implications for our own lives, that might bring it close to greatness. It's also undercut by his allowing Neal and Close to overact horrendously, to the point of either embarrassment or anger, depending on how you view that indulgence. But that's Altman, and he's done it with his actresses for forty years. If we are to appreciate Altman for what he's done, then we'll simply have to accept that as a part of his work, because it's obvious that at this point in his life and career he won't change. I don't want to attack Altman for something he's not, and never aspired to be. He's given us much pleasure over the years, and we can be grateful for that.