Films

Sweet magnolia

A revered director has fun with Dixie stereotypes

PATRICIA HLUCHY April 12 1999
Films

Sweet magnolia

A revered director has fun with Dixie stereotypes

PATRICIA HLUCHY April 12 1999

Sweet magnolia

Films

A revered director has fun with Dixie stereotypes

COOKIE’S FORTUNE

Directed by Robert Altman

Just when you thought Robert Altman had done it all, he serves up southern gothic mixed with sunny comedy. The revered U.S. director has worked in just about every genre—savage satire (M.A.S.H.,

The Player), not-so-savage satire (Nashville, Ready to Wear), revisionist western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), earnest biopic (Vincent and Theo).

Now, with Cookie’s Fortune, he goes down to small-town Mississippi and has a ball with Dixie stereotypes. There’s the dotty old matron (Patricia Neal), her faithful black caretaker (Charles S. Dutton), the Blanche Dubois-style faded belle (Glenn Close), the aw-shucks Andy of Mayberry cops (Ned Beatty, Chris O’Donnell), the courtly aged lawyer dressed all in white (Donald Moffat). For good measure, Altman and screenwriter Anne Rapp have thrown in a few bizarre skeletons in the closet. But this is gothic mixed with goofy fun. Cookie’s Fortune is perfectly light fare for spring, a warm magnolia breeze of bucolic farce.

Among the movie’s charms is the interaction of two superb actors, Neal and Dutton.

Movie legend Neal plays Jewel Mae (Cookie) Orcutt, a kindly pipe-smoking eccentric who has never got over the demise of her beloved husband, Buck. If it weren’t for her

bourbon-loving helper, Willis (Dutton), who likes to prepare catfish enchiladas for her, she probably wouldn’t have made it this far. She also cherishes her rebellious

grand-niece, Emma (Liv Tyler), who has just returned to town.

But Camille Dixon (Close), Cookie’s estranged niece and Emma’s aunt, can’t wait for the old lady to choke on a catfish bone so that she’ll inherit her antebellum mansion. For the time being, however, Camille is preoccupied with mounting an Easter production of the play Salome at her church. Directing the show as if it were about to open on Broadway, Camille exhorts her actors to be “organic.” Such are her delusions of grandeur that on a sign outside she announces the forthcoming production “by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon.” It features Cora Qulianne Moore), Camille’s sister—and Emma’s mother—in the title role, but the simpleton Cora is a mere puppet to Camille’s pink-chiffon-clad, lace hankybrandishing Svengali.

Close has fun playing yet another Cruella de Villainess, her specialty since 1987’s Fatal Attraction. And Moore, cast against type, is winningly funny as a completely stunned woman. Cookie’s Fortune is a meringue of a movie, a sweet, optimistic lark. This is a rare film that prominently features policemen, but lacks horrible violence; instead, a cop and a murder suspect play Scrabble together in a jail cell. In the benign world of Cookie’s Fortune, bad things happen only to bad folks—and a person can really know another’s character because they’ve gone fishing together.

PATRICIA HLUCHY

Going nowhere, with style

Films

Like most youth-market flicks, Never Been Kissed and Go are junk-food binges, all lip-smacking sensation. But they come from opposite ends of the teen-film refreshment stand. Never Been Kissed, starring Drew Barrymore, is as predictably sweet as a Slurpee. And it could almost have been made in the 1950s: an accidental dose of hashish leads to disgrace, while the cutest, most on-the-edge boy in high school gets the girl he worships into a bedroom in order to . . . ask her to the prom. Meanwhile, Go, aimed at a slightly older audience, is of the salt-’n’-vinegar persuasion. The first U.S. big-screen lead for Canada’s Sarah Polley, it finds humour in drugs, sex and life’s absurdity. It’s the better movie, but that’s not saying a whole lot.

Directed by Doug Liman, who made the 1996 college hit Swingers, Go focuses on a group of alienated young people in Los Angeles. They include 18-year-old supermarket clerk Ronna (Polley), who can’t pay her rent. When her drug-dealer co-worker goes out of town on the day of a rave, she decides to fill the pharmacological vacuum and sell some ecstasy herself. Naturally, things go wrong. One of her accomplices, Mannie, decides to pop

two hits and ends up communicating telepathically with a cat (the movie provides hilarious subtitles for their tête-à-tête). And Ronna barely eludes a bizarre drug sting.

Go has an abundance of delirious humour and energy. Polley, meanwhile, brings the same assurance she showed in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter to her not-terribly-demanding role as the hard-bitten Ronna. But loaded down with a pointless Las Vegas subplot and Taranti no-style violence, Go never quite gets anywhere.

Never Been Kissed is a variation on the revenge-of-the-nerds theme. Josie Geller (Barrymore), a former high-school geek supreme, is the chief copy editor at a Chicago newspaper and a dour grammarian. When the paper assigns her to pretend to be a high-schooler and write an investigative piece, she returns to class still a nerd. But Josie evolves into a woman who wears tight, low-cut tops, which in this movie signifies personal growth. Ultimately, she triumphs with a piece of personal journalism that makes her a local celebrity. Read by Barrymore in voice-over, it has a common grammatical error in one of the first sentences. But then, this is emphatically not a movie for grammarians—nor for anyone who has sworn off Slurpees.

P.H.