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Film: Footloose and purpose-free

Cookie's Fortune Director: Robert Altman Starring: Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Patricia Neal, Liv Tyler (118 mins; 12)
There are films which don't know when to stop and there are films, like Robert Altman's latest, which don't know when to start: Cookie's Fortune, be warned, has a patience-trying first half-hour. Its setting, Holly Springs, a real place, is a Mississippi hamlet whose dozy, boozy, bluesy rhythms the film has absorbed to the point at which, more than once during that unduly protracted opening section, one worries that its narrative is about to grind to a halt altogether. In the town's cluttered general store there's a sign that reads: "On this site in 1897 nothing happened", and one can't help feeling that, a century on, little has changed.

Then things do start to pop. Still pining for her long-deceased husband, the elderly Jewel Mae, the title's "Cookie" (Patricia Neal), eventually - this is what has taken so unconscionably long - buries her head in a pillow and shoots herself through it with one of hubby's lovingly polished revolvers. First to arrive on the scene is her estranged niece, the conniving Camille, Holly Springs's resident aesthete (Glenn Close), the producer, director, designer and rewriter of the local amateur dramatic society's staging of Salome ("by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon"). Horrified at the notion of a suicide in the family ("Only crazy people kill themselves"), Camille makes it look like murder with the aid of her younger sister, the clueless Cora (Julianne Moore, whose inanely beatific grin is so uncannily Stan Laurel-like one keeps waiting for her to scratch her scalp). Whereupon, suspicion falls on Willis (Charles S Dutton), an easy-going black handyman with whom Cookie has, convention-defyingly, been sharing her old Southern mansion.

Into this already pungent stew Altman mixes Emma (Liv Tyler), Cora's errant daughter, the tomboyish town tramp who works for the local catfish supplier, the sexually frustrated Manny (Lyle Lovett - when will some adventurous director cast Lovett, the improbably spitting image of Jean Cocteau, in a biopic of the poet?) and sleeps with Jason, a cute, dim- witted sheriff's deputy (Chris O'Donnell), whose superior, Lester (Ned Beatty), is unbudgeably convinced of Willis's innocence for the stubborn reason that "I've fished with him."

Quintessential Altman, then? Not quite. Even if the great mosaicist's handling of the dozen or so principal characters, not to mention all the plot strands interwoven around each other like ropes around a maypole, is as masterful as ever, his virtuosity no longer functions, as it sometimes has in the past, as a tautological signature effect - Altman, in other words, "doing an Altman". (A case in point was his wretched farce A Wedding, whose 48 speaking roles seemed to be angling after an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.) Cookie's Fortune resembles a jigsaw puzzle more than a mosaic in that, once all the pieces are in place, one is too busy studying the image itself to pay attention to those squiggly joins whose very visibility was the pleasure of a film like Short Cuts.

The first time I saw Cookie's Fortune, several months ago, I was pleasantly surprised (I had no high expectations); watching it again the other day, I found myself bowled over by the almost Fordian wealth of textural detail in its recreation of small-town Americana. The plot, although witty and ingenious (if not entirely credible, especially towards the end), had ceased to be of much consequence. When a film's dramatis personae have been invested with such warmth and charmth as Samuel Goldwyn once put it, who needs the drama?

A lot of this sweetness and serenity is due to the uniformly superb cast - that is, with the sole exception of Patricia Neal, the only performer to strike the sort of tinny, twinkly-eyed note of sentimentality which the film is otherwise mercifully free. Although in her seventies, Neal "pretends to be old"; she acts as though she were half her age and wearing a ton of makeup. If, from the others, though, I had to single someone out, it would be Liv Tyler, as much for the surprise of her performance as for the performance itself. A glazed and vacuous cover girl in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, she's the major revelation of Cookie's Fortune. Irresistibly coltish in T-shirt dungarees, completely credible in her scenes with both Dutton and O'Donnell, sexy, funny and touching, she's living proof that there really does exist such a thing as the direction of actors.

But the supreme virtue of this entrancing comedy is its refreshing lack of purpose. Robert Altman has made more than his share of terrific films, and his eleventh-hour comeback with The Player was just about the only piece of good news to come out of the Hollywood of the 1990s. Even his finest work, however, has tended to be disfigured by its beady-eyed self- importance. With Cookie's Fortune he has relaxed. This is no longer Altman the merciless flayer of venality and vulgarity, Altman the misanthropic demystifier of the American Dream. Like one of his own characters, he's closed up shop and gone fishin'.