Spring Fever


Self-consciously nestling into the richest, most fashionable and comforting of American regional cultures, Cookie’s Fortune received an enthusiastic reception when it opened the most recent Sundance Film Festival. This new Robert Altman film might wish to be a languorous spring afternoon in a sun-dappled, magnolia-scented garden. But, long before it ends, its leisurely immersion in the Mississippi Delta has turned downright lukewarm and even chilly.

Holly Springs, Mississippi— never to be confused with Hollywood, California— is a laid-back town where the local cops can talk fishing with a mystical sense of awe, where the cheerful, if entropic, juke joint is run by Rufus “Walkin’ the Dog” Thomas, where one lawyer represents everybody’s interests, and where (in an audio tic reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld’s imaginary— and scarcely less cozy— Upper West Side) every other scene reverberates with a single bent note from a slide guitar. That mournful, gutbucket quaver is there to alert you that Cookie’s Fortune will be a movie about roots.

As organized by Anne Rapp’s script, the Holly Springs social order is an extended matriarchy. Perched atop in a decrepit antebellum home is the grand-dame wacko Cookie (Patricia Neal). Beneath are her nieces, the disapproving fussbudget Camille (Glenn Close) and the mush-brained Cora (Julianne Moore). Below them is Cora’s “bad girl” daughter Emma (inertly embodied by ex­indie queen Liv Tyler), newly returned to town after some unspecified scandal. Shuttling between them all is Cookie’s live-in handyman, Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton), who functions as the clan’s fairy godfather.

Willis shuffles through town, a portly presence with a bluesman’s gold tooth and dapper stingy-brimmed panama— his considerable reservoir of good humor supplemented by the pint of Wild Turkey tucked in his back pocket. In contrast to the unassuming, homey juke joint where Willis borrows his booze is the local white-folks church. No gospelizing here. Instead, control freak Camille rehearses her pathetic sister Cora in a seasonal pageant that ludicrously revises Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

Altman has rather too much fun with Camille’s genteel playhouse of the ridiculous— not to mention her diva posturing and autocratic orchestration of her amateur cast. Bad acting is endemic to Holly Springs. If diva Neal appears to be having the time of her life as a pipe-smoking kook installed in a complementarily creaking old house, she doesn’t overstay her welcome. Indeed, she rises splendidly to the occasion of her departure— effectively burying the movie’s discomfiting echoes of Driving Miss Daisy, albeit raising the specter of To Kill a Mockingbird lite.

Even more than Woody Allen, Altman is a filmmaker who aspires to the choreographed and socially astute ensemble humanism epitomized by Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. But unlike Renoir, he has a saturnine temperament— he cannot help but condescend to half of his characters and ridicule the rest. In the Renoir film, it is famously said that everyone has their reasons; in Cookie’s Fortune, it’s more like everybody has their shtick, from the imperious red-hot mama Josie (Ruby Wilson) to the hapless catfish wholesaler (Lyle Lovett).

It’s fitting, I suppose, that the ever-enthusiastic Close shoulders the film’s burden of nastiness and self-delusion— she is after all playing a director. Still, the absurd church thespians notwithstanding, the proceedings are pretty amiable until the screeching Camille installs herself at the center of the movie’s various plots. Thereafter, the characters get dumber and the writing more cutesy— at one point the goodies huddle together for warmth in the town jail under the benign eye of Ned Beatty’s nice cop. The pace slows down even as the narrative grows more antic— with Tyler hurling herself at regular intervals at rookie lawman Chris O’Donnell.

Not that Cookie’s Fortune ever takes itself too seriously. Once Camille’s plot comes unraveled, we’re left with Altman and Rapp’s schematic, half-cracked exposition. The movie climaxes with a weird Sunset Boulevard­style arrest (as, in another echo of Rules of the Game, the church actors shuffle through Holly Springs in their Salome outfits) and then a series of family revelations. One well-telegraphed disclosure is heartwarmingly self-congratulatory, the other genealogical bombshell totally inconsequential. It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since the Nashville apocalypse and Robert Altman has decreed that America is a peaceable kingdom after all.

There’s a free-form, Altman-esque quality to the latest documentary feature by Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann. Likably eccentric, often touching, and somewhat self-indulgent, The Underground Orchestra concerns a number of street musicians eking out a living in the crevices of a very diverse (and exceedingly springlike) Paris.

The Underground Orchestra, currently at Film Forum (which opened two earlier Honigmann docs, Metal and Melancholy and O Amor Natural), begins with a handheld descent into the Paris Metro. Soon learning that it is forbidden to film in the subway (a legacy, perhaps, of the 1996 bombings), Honigmann returns with her camera concealed to document a Venezuelan harpist and several combos — one of which takes over an entire subway car to perform an elaborate version of “Try a Little Tenderness” seemingly between stops.

In the best tradition of stolen locations and I-spy cinematography, Honigmann observes not only the musicians but their underground audience— the curious kids, grouchy elders, self-involved lovers. But when the music ends and the filmmaker attempts to interview the artists, they are immediately spotted by a squadron of plainclothes cops. The police demand that everyone produce passports, serving to introduce the movie’s real themes— insecurity, marginality, and exile.

Now banished from the Metro herself, Honigmann finds even more radically displaced musicians above ground— singers from West Africa and Vietnam, a denim-clad street violinist who turns out to have deserted the Bosnian army (which drafted him from the Sarajevo symphony orchestra), and a Romanian family who work in shifts, handing off their cymbalo the way an independent cab driver might sublease his hack. The interactions are varied and surprising. Even as Honigmann discovers an Iranian master of the Armenian stand-up fiddle, demonstrating his exotic skill in an outdoor market, his performance attracts the fraternal attention of an Algerian classical clarinetist.

Suffused with music and punctuated by recurring shots of the Paris rooftops, The Underground Orchestra is a world-beat city symphony. It conjures up a free-floating internationale of refugee musicians. Most of Honigmann’s subjects have left their homelands— Argentina and Zaire, as well as the Balkans— for political reasons. Paris offers what one Romanian cellist wryly calls a “kind of freedom.” His son— a more contemporary musician with the Guns N’ Roses T-shirt to prove it— demonstrates this by comparing Jimi Hendrix to Beethoven, Jim Morrison to Schubert, and AC/DC to J.S. Bach.