Says lawyer Jack Palmer to Emma Duval, explaining the fate of her long gone father, a man she was told years ago had died while doing missionary work in Africa after he'd left his family. "He died alright, about four years later, somewhere down in Alabama in a button factory accident. Seems the hole poker machine broke loose and fell on him. They say he had 273 holes in him before they could get it off."
After all that Emma and her friend Willis Richland experience in Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune, it seems perfectly natural when Emma cries out in exasperation, "Willis, what is wrong with all these people?"
The important point is that they all are part of a movie of great ease and geniality. Cookie's Fortune may be a little sentimental, but it is so sweet-natured and natural, and so skillfully presented, that I think the film ranks among Altman's most accomplished works...even if what powers it is an old lady who blows her brains out.
Jewel Mae Orcutt -- Cookie (Patricia Neal) -- is aging and increasingly infirm, and she longs for her deceased husband, Buck. When she decides to use one of Buck's pistols to join him, she sets off the avarice of her niece, Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), who pulls along her slow-witted sister, Cora Duval (Julianne Moore). Camille is determined that no hint of a suicide will scandalize the family name, so she makes things look like a burglary gone bad. And, unintentionally, makes it look as if Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), a close friend of Cookie's who had worked around the house for her, must have done the deed.
Well, there's no way Emma Duval (Liv Tyler), an unconventional young woman who is seriously estranged from her mother, Cora, and her aunt, is going to buy that. In fact, no one, even the local cops, believes that Willis would have burglarized and shot Cookie. For the next hour and a half we're going to take part in Altman's gentle examination of the people in this little cotton-growing town of Holly Springs, Mississippi. We're going to learn how to clean catfish, listen to the blues and, a little off camera, how to make love standing up. We'll encounter Camille's obsession with propriety and look aghast at her firm direction (and rewriting) of Wilde's Salome as a church play for Easter.
We're going to see how skilled Lyle Lovett is at gutting a catfish and peeping into Liv Tyler's window at night. We're going to learn a lot about family relationships, even the more informally blessed kind. Most of all, perhaps, we're to learn just how much friendship and family can mean, especially when it's served up with such skill and off-beat humor by Altman and screenwriter Ann Rapp.
And as good as all the actors in this ensemble cast are, Charles S. Dutton stands out. He gives a fine performance brimming with likeability and honesty, and without a trace of Hollywood nobility. Willis Richland is a man who has responsibilities, and that's just fine with him.