The Gingerbread Man

Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Robert Altman (based on an original story by John Grisham)
Stars: Kenneth Branagh (Rick Magruder), Embeth Davidtz (Mallory Doss), Robert Downey Jr. (Clyde Pell), Daryl Hannah (Lois Harlan), Robert Duvall (Dixon Doss), Tom Berenger (Pete Randle), Famke Janssen (Leeanne), Jesse James (Jeff), Mae Whitman (Libby)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1998
Country: USA
Whenever writer/director Robert Altman works in a specific genre, he has the tendency to rewrite it on his own terms. He made the West dirty in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971), he parodied hard-boiled detective stories in "The Long Goodbye" (1973), and he transformed a cartoon into flesh and blood with "Popeye" (1980). The same holds true for his most recent film, "The Gingerbread Man," which reinvents a genre that has developed at an exponential rate over the last five years: the John Grisham Movie.

By the time "The Gingerbread Man" was completed, there was very little evidence that it was ever based on a story by Grisham. There's no idealist young lawyer ala Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Chris O'Donnell or Matt Damon, and it doesn't feature a great showdown in a courtroom. Instead of being a grand ode to the powers of the legal profession, "The Gingerbread Man" is a rain-soaked, Southern Gothic noir thriller with wildly eccentric characters, a twisting plot line, black humor, a somewhat bleak ending, and even Altman's trademark full-frontal female nudity.

The central character of the film is Rick Magruder, who is unlike any of Grisham's other lawyer heroes. He is older, experienced, and rich; he drives a cherry-red $80,000 Mercedes that never gets dirty, even in the incessantly pouring rain of Savannah, Georgia, where the story unfolds. Rick is in the midst of an ugly divorce with his wife, Leeanne (Famke Janssen), and he rarely gets to see his two children, Jeff (Jesse James) and Libby (Mae Whitman). A reason is never given for the divorce, but it isn't hard to surmise that Rick's womanizing had a large part in it. Whenever he's late to pick up the kids on his visitation days, Leeanne always assumes it's because he's been "screwing around."

After an office party celebrating another of his court victories (he hasn't lost in eight years), Rick becomes involved with Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), one of the catering waitresses. He drives her home because her car has been stolen, and they end up in bed together. Rick finds out that Mallory is being terrorized and stalked by her slightly psychotic father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall), a grungy, stringy, bare-footed old man who leads a commune of other greasy old codgers. It was actually Dixon who stole her car that night, and when Rick asks why, Mallory replies that he always does "weird" stuff like that. As another character puts it, Dixon is "a few beers short of six-pack."

Rick ends up convincing Mallory to have Dixon brought to court and tried for competency. He succeeds with information dug up by Clyde Pell, a private investigator friend (Robert Downey Jr.), and testimony from Mallory's begrudging ex-husband, Pete Randle (Tom Berenger). Dixon is put in a mental hospital, but his commune buddies succeed in breaking him out. From there, the story delves into kidnapping, murder, double-crossing, and even a hurricane that adds an ominous cloud of constant violence to the action.

Altman's cinematographer, Changwei Gu, gives the film a dark, soaked look. If it isn't night-time, at least it's raining. Gu shoots the interiors, which are almost all dark wood paneling, with a minimum of light. A great deal of the action takes place in the leafy Georgia backwoods, which Altman uses to create an acute sense of dread and vulnerability. In the city there is danger enough, but when Rick has to venture into the woods, you can almost feel him leaving all hope of civilization behind as he literally enters another world.

Altman has worked in just about every conceivable genre, from westerns to epic dramas to comedies. But, no matter what the genre, he is always sure to give it the Altman stamp, which usually consists of all kinds of idiosyncratic quirks and little details that are often missed without repeat viewings. "The Gingerbread Man" is no different, although his style is much more restrained here. However, without those little touches, the film could have easily slumped into a routine action/thriller.

A great deal of the credit for the film's success can be given to the actors, especially Branagh, who rarely works outside of period pieces and his own direction. Here, the British actor consistently maintains a serviceable Southern drawl, while making an essentially contemptible character interesting and sympathetic. Rick is an extremely flawed man, but Branaugh brings real humanity to his character. Without it, the entire film would fall flat because so much of it is reliant on the audience feeling Rick's pain and frustration.

The supporting actors also put in fine performances, including Embeth Davidtz, who is probably best known for her heart-breaking role as the Jewish maid in "Schindler's List" (1993). Tom Berenger provides some gruff comic relief, and Robert Duvall spends most of his on-screen time just looking weird. It doesn't seem like he does much because he has very little spoken dialogue, but watch him closely during the film's one courtroom scene: his entire performance is in his eyes and his body language, and few actors could have pulled it off without being either silly or overbearing.

While "The Gingerbread Man" isn't in league with Altman's greatest works like "Nashville" (1975) or "The Player" (1992), it is nonetheless a solid piece of genre filmmaking, which may prove a successful vehicle to restart his somewhat lagging career. Some critics love to stamp films like this as "commercial," as if Altman can only maintain artistic integrity if his films are aimed at a tiny audience and don't make money. Altman has done something much better: he took what could have been a generic movie, and by investing artistry and effort, he made it into something more.

©1998 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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