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This 'Cookie' will satisfy Altman's fans

"Cookie's Fortune" comes from Robert Altman, which means it will delight some moviegoers and irritate others.

True, it's not a groundbreaking work on the order of "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville," his most legendary pictures. Yet fans of this American filmmaker will be glad to know that it mobilizes his distinctive style - roving camera, improvisatory acting, and unpredictable twists. It's his most successful movie in years, marking yet another comeback for a director who's already had more than his share.

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The title character is a Mississippi matriarch who spends her time reminiscing about the days when she and her community were younger and happier. Her best friend is a middle-aged black workman who's been helping her through life ever since her husband died. Her closest relatives are a trio of women: Camille, a culture-vulture who's staging a theatrical production in the neighborhood church; Cora, who's never figured out how to escape Camille's overbearing shadow; and Emma, a gorgeous young girl caught between two suitors - a shy catfish merchant and an outgoing deputy sheriff.

The story takes off when Cookie unexpectedly dies, and the police launch an investigation into her demise. This is no easy task, since Camille and Cora have tampered with the evidence in hopes of firming up their inheritance.

Cookie's loyal helper is arrested for killing her, even though he's so famously honest that the sheriff doesn't bother to lock the door of his cell. He passes the time with Emma while the cops pursue their inquiry, the town's only attorney prepares his defense, and Camille rehearses half the local population in "Salome," her improbable choice for the Easter pageant play.

As in many Altman movies, this plot is just a loosely strung excuse for a series of digressions, distractions, and diversions that are the real interest. "Cookie's Fortune" is less a story than a good-natured study of human foibles, roaming through its Deep South location like a sharp-eyed traveler on the lookout for tantalizing anecdotes to share with the folks back home.

Given this agenda, spectators who like tightly wound tales and neatly delivered messages will squirm through much of the film.

But those who enjoy mood, atmosphere, and personality for their own sakes will have a splendid time, and moviegoers of all varieties can enjoy the excellent acting by Patricia Neal as the old widow, Glenn Close and Julianne Moore as her nieces, Liv Tyler as Cora's lovely daughter, Chris O'Donnell and Lyle Lovett as the men in her life, and Charles S. Dutton in an Oscar-worthy performance as the man accused of doing Cookie in.

Altman is one of very few directors who could have assembled such a superb ensemble, and he makes the most of it from first scene to last.

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*Rated PG-13; contains sex, violence, and vulgarity.

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