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Robert Altman has been making films for fifty years
and has gifted us with memorable movie experiences. From the stunning
Western-like-no-other, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), to perhaps his greatest
masterpiece, Nashville(1975), to the strange, wonderful, and
underrated Three Women (1977), and The Player (1992), a scathingly satirical view of the
film industry, Altman's achievements are astonishing in their inventiveness and variety.
There have been some duds along the way, of course, but artists take risks and sometimes
they miss. We'll take Altman's hits and misses over the general stream of
mediocrity that comes out of Hollywood.
Altman's latest is more likely a footnote than a major chapter in his career. But a
charming and amusing footnote it is, lighter and gentler that we have come to expect from
him. We are transported to Holly Springs, a small southern town, where Altman introduces
us to the Orcutt family. Aging Jewel Mae, played to perfection by Patricia Neal, puffs
away at her pipe, yearns for her late husband, and early on decides it is time to check
out. Sad, especially because we don't get to see more of Ms. Neal.
Her niece, Camille (Glenn Close in
high style - by the end she'll bring to mind both Fatal Attraction AND Sunset Boulevard) is a
caricature of every attitudinous southern belle ever on screen. The plot hinges on Camille
attempting to cover up Jewel Mae's suicide - it simply isn't an acceptable thing for a
member of their family to do. Don't pay too much attention to the publicity that calls it
a mystery. We know from the start who did what to whom.
Other members of the top notch cast
include Julianne Moore as Camille's dim sister, Liv Tyler as her liberated and independent
niece, and Charles Dutton as a family retainer.
As the hilariously botched police
investigation proceeds, Camille is busily directing the Easter play at the town church,
Oscar Wilde's Salome, with script improvements, of course, by Camille. The entire
scenario provides Altman plenty of opportunity for satirical digs at small town southern
foibles. And, to provide a hint of prurient interest, Liv Tyler is bonking the handsome,
if dumb, sheriff's deputy at every opportunity.
If the film is a tad longer than one
might have wished, maybe it needed the time to develop the characters and situation so
that it plays out as cleverly as it does. Be patient through the slow beginning and you'll
have a fine giggle and a half.
- Arthur Lazere