“He’s definately innocent.
How do you know that?
I fished with him”
I was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t had Altman pegged all wrong, if he actually wasn’t as set and standardized a film-maker as I had imagined, because the last two films from him that I saw have been exceptions to all my expectations. Thankfully though this film, Cookie’s Fortune, is another example of what it is that Altman does so well, of the unique style that he has made so memorable over his extended oeuvre. Which isn’t to say that this is pat or tired film-making, Altman’s trademark tropes are all examples of his experimental streak and there is no shame in repeating an experiment, if anything such a practice is scientifically more sound than the alternative. It is also a fitting approach for this particular film because it is one that focuses so strongly with returning to your roots and embracing the familiar.
The film tells the story of a small town in the south that is shocked, mildly, by the murder of one of its oldest patrons and the investigation that follows. I best not delve into the details any further because it is a plot best experienced piece by piece as Altman originally paced it, but don’t let that give you the expectation that this is a film driven by reveals or plot twists because the truth is to the contrary, this is no mystery movie. It is however just as apt to compare this film to a puzzle as it is some Midsummer Murder-esque experience; on the surface the connection is the same but the nature of the comparison is completely different.
The film is like a puzzle in that it is dealt out to us in large number of little pieces. We see snippets of each character as they go about their lives and at first these sections are as a blur, just smudges of colour and shapes, but as we add each piece together a picture begins to form and then once we have a base outline we can see in those smudges new intricate details that allow us to better separate them from their peers and so on until eventually it all comes together. As it is with any real puzzle this activity is no great strain and nor is their any particular answer to be derived from the picture it eventually forms – which is why the term has always bothered me when used in regards to those most baffling of movies; Putting these pieces together is just a nice, relaxing activity for a cold, Sunday afternoon and there need be no more motivation than that.
As the film is, basically, a combination of Altman’s loose, ensemble driven dramas and a comedy akin to the Howard Hawks-esque screwballs of old a lot of the films joy is delivered through its humour. There are a lot of witty one-liners and clever twists of plot but the true hilarity stems from the films ability to observe and softly satirize a whole host of social interactions. There are an innumerable number of scenes that just have you laughing for no good reason at all; I guess that I might say at the bizzarity of it all if forced but then the film also feels so natural and undramatised that the term shouldn’t apply at all. It’s actually a bit of a rarity in that, for the most part, it never has you laughing at anybody – there are no victims of the humour here – but it also very rarely has them laughing with you at the jokes, because the actors are all playing it so very straight, and so there really is no obvious source of the humour, but thank god that it’s there.
And speaking of the actors Altman has assembled here another amazing All-Star cast headed remarkably well by Charles S. Dutton – a supporting character actor that you would have seen here and there but never thought much of – and though they aren’t given a whole lot of major meat to chew on each actor still takes their role and gives it their all, so that the film has one of the best-balanced ensembles that I’ve ever seen; each character was interesting enough and rounded enough to be the protagonist had there been a need for one and even without that extra attention each is still at least a memorable as the lead in any other movie. Most important of all though is that Juliane Moore is among the line-up – my love for Moore has not yet been mentioned on this blog, but lets just say that she is my favourite all time actress and leave it at that lest the authorities need be called – and in a rare comic role to boot, playing an airy and absent minded lynchpin who ties together all these separate stories.
As funny and as fascinating and as all these moments and characters are I simply can’t help thinking that they’re almost unnecessary to the films success; it’s not great because of any particular line or role, instead it’s the tone that truly succeeds. Sitting back in this summery small town under the guidance of such experienced hands as Altman’s just has an altogether pleasant feeling to it, there is a scent of that Capra-esque sentiment in the films baying, breezy air; which is interesting given that the mans later works were mostly mordant, scathing affairs. So it feels to me like the camera could easily have been on the exact opposite side of town during every scene, or that we could have visited on any other day and yet the film would have been just as enjoyable an experience; in the same way as piecing together a puzzle with the picture of a mountain range is very much the same as doing one of a Spanish galleon. It’s all about the feel and this film, this film feels like fishing.