As Emma Duvall, a bourbon-swilling Mississippi rebel, Liv Tyler barely talks to Jason (Chris O'Donnell), a bumbling sheriff's deputy who's too polite to question Emma's 234 parking tickets. Still, Emma and Jason indulge in wild sex whenever possible, bashing each other against walls, thrashing around in closets, doing bizarre things with Jason's handcuffs. And don't ask about the centurion drag that Jason wears for a church production of Oscar Wilde's scandalous Salome directed and rewritten by Camille Dixon (Glenn Close), Emma's domineering aunt, and starring Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore), Emma's slow-witted mother, as the vengeful vixen who demands the head of John the Baptist.
These are just a few of the eccentric characters who shake up the seeming quiet in Holly Springs, a small town simmering with dirty family secrets that involve lust, betrayal, miscegenation, madness, suicide and accusations of murder. Anne Rapp, a former script supervisor (The Color Purple, This Is Spinal Tap) making an auspicious screenwriting debut, turns these Southern-fried shenanigans into a sly, Gothic comedy.
Geography aside, Cookie's Fortune is set squarely in Robert Altman country, and the master, who has taken audiences on trips from Nashville to Kansas City, is in top form. Altman clarifies a convoluted plot with a magician's ease, creates an atmosphere that brims with the pleasures of the unexpected and explores character nuances in defiance of the presumption that Hollywood hackdom has obliterated the need for solid storytelling.
And the director hasn't lost his knack with actors. Tyler and O'Donnell both display an unforeseen flair for comedy. Close has a ball as the belle whose genteel manners can't disguise her steely connivance. Moore builds her portrayal slowly, but the payoff is potent as Cora exacts a revenge on her tyrannical sister that would do Salome proud. The terrific cast includes Lyle Lovett as a catfish supplier with a lech for Emma, Donald Moffat as the town's only lawyer and a never-better Ned Beatty as the sheriff who vouches for a man's innocence of a crime with a foolproof character reference: "I fish with him."
That man is Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), the black caretaker who looks after Emma's great-aunt Cookie (Patricia Neal), a widow who lives in a rundown mansion and has no use for her family, except for Emma. Cookie's fun comes in teasing Willis about his yen for Wild Turkey, eating his specialty dish of catfish enchiladas and caring for the gun collection of her late husband, Buck.
Let's just say without revealing more of the story that one of Buck's guns is fired, Cookie dies and Willis is charged with murder. Neal, in a small role, is hugely affecting. And Dutton, a great stage actor (The Piano Lesson) best known for TV's Roc, is the film's glory in a performance of quiet humor and soaring compassion. No need to discuss Dutton and Neal — just sit back and behold. Altman, buoyed by David A. Stewart's bluesy score, cooks up a dish as tasty and surprising as one of Willis' catfish enchiladas.