Altman’s Gold

And Drew Barrymore’s. And the Wachowski Brothers’.

Cookie’s Fortune
Directed by Robert Altman
October Films

Never Been Kissed
Directed by Raja Gosnell
20th Century Fox

The Matrix
Directed by the Wachowski Brothers
Warner Bros.

I don’t want to project too much onto Robert Altman’s bluesy charmer Cookie’s Fortune–to argue, for instance, that it’s the work of an old master summing up. But it sure feels that way. The screenwriter, Anne Rapp, has provided Altman with a blueprint not only for an ensemble comedy but also for a comedy that honors the very idea of an ensemble. It’s no wonder Altman fell on it. As early as M*A*S*H (1970), the director seemed more taken with the ebb and flow of groups than with the isolated treks of individuals. It’s not just that he likes to tell stories with multiple strands, or that he gets bored easily with one consciousness, or even that he cherishes some ‘60s utopian fantasy of the collective. What Cookie’s Fortune suggests is that for Altman order in the universe can’t be discerned in the comings and goings of lone heroes but in the interactions among vast and disparate collections of people. This time out, he transforms the bad vibes of his other films into a vision that’s positively serene. He celebrates a universe that has found its equilibrium and the easy way in which it rights itself when a nasty bit of flotsam threatens to throw it out of whack.

The movie takes place in the Deep South, which was also the setting for Altman’s edgy, disharmonic thriller The Gingerbread Man (1998). The opening is teasingly misleading, as if to make you think you’re seeing The Gingerbread Man II: In Holly Springs, a small, Mississippi cotton town, Willis Richland (Charles S. Dutton) staggers out of a blues joint semi-drunk, then drops his bottle of bourbon when a police car glides ominously past. So he heads back into the bar, steals a fifth of Wild Turkey, then ambles past the railroad tracks and peeps into a van where a young woman (Liv Tyler) has been undressing. Then he climbs in the window of a big, antebellum house and takes some guns from a glass cabinet at the foot of the main staircase.

So far, so Southern Gothic. Except that Willis, it turns out, is the town’s gentlest spirit, loved even by those passing police, who are his fishing buddies. He’s a caretaker at that house–he couldn’t find his keys. The girl he was spying on is the runaway niece of the elderly widow, “Cookie” Orcutt (Patricia Neal), he works for. He’d promised to clean those guns before he went to bed. And, the next afternoon, Willis buys a fifth of Wild Turkey and surreptitiously slips it behind the bar of the blues joint to replace the one he’d swiped. The owner (Rufus Thomas) pretends not to notice, but when Willis leaves he turns to his chesty singer (Ruby Wilson) and says, “Willis is even again.”

That’s the core of Cookie’s Fortune: “Willis is even again.” It suggests a community in which everything is in balance, in which people accept the good and the bad, in faith that it will all even out in the end. The picture sits vaguely in the comic-mystery genre, but it’s more of a relaxant than a thriller. There’s a violent death and a cover-up, and the police have to figure out what really happened before an innocent person is condemned to prison–or worse. But Altman doesn’t let the audience’s outrage mount. The act that kicks the movie into a higher gear comes nearly half an hour in, and Altman is in no hurry to get to his narrative point. That’s probably because he has to eliminate Cookie to do it, and Patricia Neal isn’t someone you want to get rid of. The actress, now in her 70s, has shrunk in physical stature but has otherwise swelled–I don’t remember her having such power in her lungs. When she sucks on her pipe and stares at the gun cabinet and upbraids her late husband for leaving her behind, Altman clearly wants her to take all the time in the world.

How do you convince young directors to watch and emulate Altman? It’s so much easier to push a filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick, whose brilliant sequences you can screen and dissect in a cinema studies class. Altman uses a distinctive color palette here–a lot of neonlike primary colors, as if the whole Mississippi town were a blues joint–but his mastery is in his offhandedness, in how he conceals his own storytelling. There’s always a sense that his characters are living even when you’re not watching them, maybe because the actors don’t seem “on” the way they do for other directors: Altman catches them in his gaze and gives them the once-over and then they go about their business. Actors I didn’t think I’d want to see again–Ned Beatty and Donald Moffat–I wanted to see more of, and Chris O’Donnell is positively reborn as a bumbling young policeman who only wants to make out with Liv Tyler against the station house soda machine. Courtney B. Vance shows up as an officious homicide detective from a nearby city who finds Holly Springs’ lazy informality irritating, but none of the women wants to answer his queries: They want to flirt with him, and he can’t help falling into their easy rhythms.

Glenn Close plays Camille Orcutt, Cookie’s histrionic niece and the director of the church theatricals (currently Oscar Wilde’s Salome), whose hysterical obsession with hiding the “disgraceful” truth throws the town into an uproar. I was surprised to find Close in the movie, since her clenched, overly controlled acting seems at odds with what Altman usually goes for. But this might be her best performance ever. Her Camille is like a steely, demented temperance activist who keeps charging into otherwise relaxed settings and throwing them into chaos. (“You’d think the police could take their stupid crime tape with them when they leave!”) She pairs beautifully with Julianne Moore as Camille’s simple-minded, vaguely schitzy sister, Cora, who’s so browbeaten that whenever she’s called on to talk, the Scripture comes flowing out of her mouth like lava.

The truth in Cookie’s Fortune isn’t ferreted out à la Murder She Wrote; it emerges in dribs and drabs–a witness here, a piece of evidence there–as if by natural law. You might even say that the truth emerges as a consequence of chaos and not from some misguided pursuit of order. What seems, on the surface, as ingratiating a movie as Altman has ever made, is actually packed with subversive ideas. It ends on a note of blithe miscegenation–just the sort of punch line to send the Camilles of the world screaming from the theater swiping at invisible bugs.

A s a young movie critic, I made the wrong sort of name for myself by swooning in print over many a nubile actress. Yes, I was often promiscuous in my praise and, yes, my affaires de la tête were often sadly short-lived. But I’ve practiced the critical equivalent of abstinence for many years now, and it’s time to reassert what can never be forgotten: It is the right, nay the duty, of a critic to fall and fall hard. I see no point in writing about Never Been Kissed–a pleasant but annoyingly insubstantial teen comedy–unless I can pull out the stops and say it’s worth seeing, it demands to be seen, for Drew Barrymore, who is at once the dizziest and most magically poised comedienne in movies today.

Barrymore plays a frumpy newspaper copy editor who’s ordered to go undercover as a high-school student by a nuttily competitive publisher (Garry Marshall). Is Drew a convincing frump? Surprisingly so. She hits her slight speech impediment harder than usual and further relaxes her already shlumpy posture. Trying to fit in with the “cool” kids, she seems heartbreakingly defenseless. You could mistake her for an ordinary, unaffected nerd, except that the genius Barrymore timing is in every breath, every screwy inflection, every pratfall. After an hour, I thought that Never Been Kissed might be the most fun teenpic since Clueless, but ultimately the movie takes too many shortcuts even on its own dumb, formulaic terms, and it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to pander to teen-age fantasies of good looks and popularity or to scold teen-agers for being so shallow. No matter. The picture would have to be a hell of a lot worse to keep me from going back to watch Drew bite her lower lip and that shy smile spread meltingly across that sweet, eternally girlish face and …

W ait, maybe I’d better switch to The Matrix, which made $37 million in its first week and seems poised to become a phenomenon. Directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, it’s a mishmash of Hong Kong sword-fighting ghost epics, Kafkaesque virtual reality fantasies, Cronenbergian visions of cybernetically enhanced flesh, Alice in Wonderland surrealism, post-apocalyptic urban grunge, Terminator-like battles of man vs. machine, and portentous lumpen-Zen posturing (“I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it”). It shouldn’t make a lick of sense, let alone feel all of a piece, but The Matrix is actually one of the more lyrical sci-fi action thrillers ever made, in which space and time become love slaves to the directors’ witty visual fancies. Keanu Reeves makes a lean, strikingly beautiful tabula rasa hero, twisting out of the way of bullets that elongate like silver beads of mercury, and he’s partnered by the equally hard, blank, and androgynously gorgeous Carrie-Anne Moss. Walls and pillars explode around them but the sleek, geometric lines of their bodies never soften. The machines, in comparison, seem fuzzy.