American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Cookie's Fortune'' is Robert Altman's sunniest film, a warm-hearted comedy that somehow manages to deal with death and murder charges without even containing a real villain. True, the Glenn Close character comes close to villainy by falsifying a death scene, but since she's in the middle of directing the Easter play at her church, maybe it's partly a case of runaway theatrical zeal.
The movie takes place in the small town of Holly Springs, Miss., where Altman assembles a large cast of lovable characters. He's a master of stories that interconnect a lot of people ("MASH,'' "Nashville,'' "The Player,'' "Short Cuts''), and here one of the pleasures is discovering the hidden connections.
The film begins with a false alarm. A black man named Willis (Charles S. Dutton) wanders out of a bar, seems to break into a home, and studies the guns displayed in a cabinet. An elderly white woman (Patricia Neal) comes downstairs and finds him, and then we discover they're best friends. Neal plays Cookie, a rich widow who misses her husband fiercely. Glenn Close is Camille Dixon, her niece, who discovers Cookie's dead body and rearranges the death scene to make it look like a break-in and a murder.
Meanwhile, Altman's camera strolls comfortably around town, introducing us to Cora (Julianne Moore), Camille's dim sister; Emma (Liv Tyler), Cora's daughter, who takes a pass on genteel society and works at the catfish house; and the forces down at the police station, including the veteran officer Lester (Ned Beatty), Jason the doofus sheriff's deputy (Chris O'Donnell) and Wanda the deputy (Niecy Nash). Some of these people have roles in the Easter play, which is "Salome'' (the letterboard in front of the church says it's "by Oscar Wilde and Camille Dixon'').