19 April 1999 | SKG-2
One of Altman's best
It's hard to believe a film this sunny came from Robert Altman, and is also this good, but there you go. While I love some of his films, like M*A*S*H, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, NASHVILLE, THE PLAYER, and SHORT CUTS, there are times when I feel he has a fundamental contempt for his subject matter, like in THE LONG GOODBYE and POPEYE, and for his characters. But while this movie, well-written by Anne Rapp, is essentially a Tennessee Williams drama turned inside out (Glenn Close's character is the only one who seems like a refugee from Williams territory), we instead feel a great deal for each of the characters. Even Close's Camille, whose machinations end up in the temporary jailing of an innocent man for a crime that never was, is somewhat likable.
When Altman is on, we really get a sense of community and place, as opposed to movies which are just a triumph of production design, and this is no exception. The best example of this is how Lester(Ned Beatty), a deputy sheriff, sums up his reasons for why Willis(Charles S. Dutton), that innocent man referred to earlier, is innocent of killing Cookie(Patricia Neal); "I fished with him." In another movie, that line of reasoning would be ridiculous, but since you feel all of these people have known each other for years, it seems just right. And the rhythms of the town feel right as well, so you don't feel like you're just watching a filmed set.
Casting has always been a hallmark of Altman films, and this one is no different. Charles S. Dutton is as good as they say, being more restrained than usual, Close shows great comic timing in her role, and Julianne Moore is very good as her put-upon younger sister, who has a lot more to her than meets the eye. And Altman regulars like Beatty and Lyle Lovett are quite good as well. The most surprising turns came from Liv Tyler and Chris O'Donnell. I've liked Tyler before(in HEAVY, EMPIRE RECORDS, and THAT THING YOU DO!), but to imagine her with shorn hair playing a rebel who skins fish for a living was a bit much, to say the least, but she's utterly convincing. O'Donnell has always seemed too callow, but here he's quite funny as a deputy sheriff who's seen way too many cop shows. And he and Tyler have nice chemistry together.