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Robert Altman tarries a while longer in the Deep South, idly tracing the stereotypical loopiness of the natives. If the movie lacks the pervasive weather of The Gingerbread Man, it is thickly atmospheric all the same, settling into the locale as into an overstuffed easy chair: Holly Springs, Mississippi, at Eastertime, which explains the deposits of colored eggs in the backyard, if not the amateur theatrical production of Oscar Wilde's Salome at the red-brick First Presbyterian. When the title character, a corncob-pipe-smoking old widow, decides to follow her husband into the hereafter, the niece who discovers the body decides to eat the suicide note and to disguise the deed ("a disgrace") as the doing of an intruder. The finger of guilt then points to the departed's loyal retainer and sole companion, a well-cushioned black man who may filch a half-pint of Wild Turkey on occasion but is scrupulous about replacing it. The police investigation is of little interest. We know who knows the exculpatory fact, and we wait, with some impatience and no concern, for him to step forward. For all his laid-back air, Altman is always a little overobvious in his apportionment of approval and disapproval. At the top of the second list, Glenn Close as the meddling niece and Julianne Moore as her subjugated sister grow rapidly tiresome. Charles S. Dutton, on the other side, is most agreeable as the self-moderating bourbon nipper ("never before Tom Brokaw"). And it's nice to see Patricia Neal on the big screen for the only time in the Nineties, looking human, looking like herself, looking quite well, and acting well, too. We do not get to see her for long. Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Lyle Lovett. (1999) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated PG-13

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