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MOVIE REVIEW Cookie's Fortune

Rating ***

Sensuous rhythm-and-blues singers, wacky dilettantes, laid-back deputy sheriffs and a smattering of cool dudes and dudettes bring their own rhythms to this believable, if simplistic, version of the American Deep South. And it's these elements, along with floral dresses, southern drawls, and smoky bars in a '50s kind of limbo and commendable cinematography that give this story a real sense of place.

Filmed on location in Holly Springs, Mississippi, this amusing tale of massacre, mayhem and mud-slinging stars Glenn Close as Camille Duvall, the bitter, grasping sister whose ambitions keep her well in orbit. She lives with and dominates her sister, Cora (Julianne Moore), who also inhabits a galaxy all her own.

Pipe-smoking widow, Cookie (Patricia Neal), their estranged aunt, lives and dies in a gracious old pink-stucco mansion with a gorgeous garden, quirky antiques and lots of history. Wisps of French lace on the windows, touches of stained glass and her fortune in jewellery are Cookie's life and her links with the past. Her faithful handyman, Willis (Charles Dutton) is also part of her past, helping to keep the memory of her husband alive. Willis embodies the southern spirit with his ambling gait, slightly sloshed demeanor and wonderfully caring personality.

When Willis is arrested for Cookie's murder, deputy sheriff Lester Boyle (Ned Beatty) keeps him in an unlocked cell and plays scrabble with him. Lester is convinced of his innocence because "I fished with him" a southern kind of rationale the small community understands. Cora's alienated daughter and Cookie's favorite relative, Emma (Liv Tyler), joins Willis in the cell to protest his arrest. She brings him whiskey in his coffee and has sex in the back room with her old boyfriend. The twenty-something boyfriend, played by Chris O'Donnell, is a hilariously bumbling deputy sheriff who has clearly seen too many cop shows.

And, in the end, justice is done. Everything shakes out well, leaving us with a happy sense of satisfaction and smiles on our faces.

This 1999 comedy-drama is now on video. The soundtrack, available on CD, is a good collector's item for rhythm-and-blues fans.