When the matriarch of a Southern family commits suicide, her best friend and handyman is suspected of having killed her. It falls to her wild great-grandneice to find out what really happened.
After more than 30 films, 74-year-old maverick Robert Altman is still clearly at his keenest picking at the seams of a patchwork quilt of American culture. This droll Southern Gothic comedy is one of the slighter tales, but still tailored to his specifications: a first rate ensemble engaged in overlapping plots for an irreverent kaleidoscope-of-life.
Altman seems to be mellowing. Greed, deception and foibles are all present, but the satire isn't scathing. We're in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where the air is thick with the blues and sin. Cookie (Patricia Neal) enjoys a feisty comradeship with her handyman Willis (Charles S. Dutton), noted for a weakness for bourbon. Cookie's dramatic and messy demise is the catalyst for townwide recriminations and revelations when her venal nieces, domineering Camille (Close) and docile, dazed belle Cora (Moore) get Willis arrested for Cookie's murder.
The obligatory whale-bellied cop Lester (Ned Beatty) knows the old boy did no such thing, because he and Willis are fishing fellows. But while city slicker prosecutor Otis (Courteney B. Vance) tries to conduct a murder investigation among Southern eccentrics, it's up to Cookie's wild child great-niece Emma (Tyler) and randy moronic deputy Jason (O'Donnell) to get to the grist of the matter.
Altman's never been hung up on structure, and this one is very loose in the slow first third given to atmosphere and amusingly odd notes - see Lyle Lovett's creepy catfishmonger. But the real pleasure is in the extremes, from Camille directing town dignitaries in an absurd Presbyterian pageant of Oscar Wilde's Salomé to Willis and his 'tormentors' playing Scrabble in the county jail.
Lacking the bite of his best work, and any real structure, this isn't great Altman but it's fun Altman.