THE GINGERBREAD MAN (1998)

After the cool audience reception to 1996’s Kansas City, Robert Altman teed up a project that was certainly to be money in the bank. For in the 90’s, adaptations of the work of author John Grisham had become as fashionable and profitable as adaptations of Stephen King novels had been in the early 80’s. And the bonus was that, though John Grisham was purely airport book rack fare, marquee directors such as Sydney Pollack, Alan J. Pakula, and Francis Ford Coppola were keen on turning his words into serviceable, highly entertaining, middlebrow thrillers.

Altman got the freshest of the bunch with The Gingerbread Man. While the Grisham adaptations were generally founded on a blockbuster title that had already sold millions of copies, The Gingerbread Man was an adaptation of a discarded Grisham manuscript and was therefore impervious to any criticisms about its fidelity to the source material.

The opening image is a sweeping and purposefully disorienting 10,000 foot overview of the Georgia coast amid the aural scrum of multiple conversations floating through the atmosphere on unsecured telephone lines. Slowly, we focus on one red car and all of the conversations begin to fade out except for the lone voice of attorney Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh), morally ambivalent pussy hound who is ripe for a cosmic comeuppance.

Rick is a slick defense attorney who works in a Savannah law firm that is impeccably clean, contains the correct amount of legal research books in the bookshelves in its conference room, and where all of the wainscoting is highly glossed and probably costs as much as a small vehicle. A media darling for being tough on cops and reducing them to rubble on the stand, it’s fair to say that he’s not particularly well-appreciated by those in law enforcement. He also finds no fan in Leanne Magruder (Famke Janssen), his long-suffering ex-wife who is now involved with her divorce attorney and who is forever haranguing Rick about his indifference to his parental duties involving their two children.

One rainy night, Rick assists Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a damaged, white-trash beauty who might as well be wearing a sign that flashes “Femme Fatale,” and he soon spirals into a world of dangerous, hillbilly mountain men, deception, ex-husbands, dead cats, kidnapping, and murder. And, despite being devilishly entertaining and highly watchable, absolutely none of it is surprising and, most dispiriting, little of it has Altman’s personality in it. Sure, it takes a wide swing at lawyers but, like flaming the pretentiousness of Paris Fashion Week, that’s not necessarily a stance that is all that uniquely Altmanesque.

This is not to say that this film is completely devoid of Altman’s style. Like 1968’s Countdown, the overlapping dialogue feels pinched off and measured in aid of ensuring that the audience doesn’t get untethered from the information vital to the narrative, a strategy he would gleefully chuck into the trash with Gosford Park a few years later just as sure as he did with M*A*S*H in 1970. But even if the dialogue does retain a realistic edge and sense of urgency to it, and as tasty as each bite of the Altman-penned screenplay is (written under the pseudonym Al Hayes), it’s all force fed to the audience in the vorder that makes the most sense to their palate.

Altman throws in some very subtle moments that are very much in his style including lingering shots that focus on interior bric-a-brac or other inanimate objects as everyone exits frame and the scene concludes. He allows his story to take place in a living and breathing location, evidenced by casting Vernon Jordan as a partner in Branagh’s firm; or, in a nice moment late in the film, Robert Downey, Jr.’s drunken lothario-cum-private eye leaves two women at a bar to head out on a stakeout and in a scene immediately following, Branagh is in the same bar and the women have moved on and are occupying a table with another person. Small touches like this make the piece feel a little less waxy and stiff.

Another plus is that this is much more lawyer-noir than it is a courtroom drama. While there are scattered moments spent within the confines of Branagh’s law office, there is but one scene that takes place in a courtroom. It’s steeped in noir-ish conventions and callbacks, namely Key Largo. The casing of the house with the almost absurdly symmetrical X-marks-the-spot tape job on the windows recalls Hawks’s The Big Sleep and Scarface, respectively.

While it lapses into overblown territory at times, Mark Isham’s score is very good, and especially excellent is the cinematography by Gu Changwei who bathes the film in warm colors and finds various and creative ways to pop the reds. But everything is almost TOO just right, everyone hitting their marks TOO well. The performances are all very good (especially Branagh, Downey, and, in a thankless role, Daryl Hannah) but the contrived third act puts this in league with the kind of nitwit shit that was sent up in The Player. In fact, I would have liked it better if someone would have slipped in “Traffic was a bitch” somewhere in its closing moments. And, almost ironically, there was almost a Griffin Mill Situation with the film as Polygram got very nervous with it after it tested poorly and then recut it against Altman’s wishes and without his knowledge. After he blew up and threatened to take his name off the film, his cut was restored. But the tension between artist and product is always apparent with product reigning supreme in almost every moment. One has to wonder how much of this losing struggle was due to the lack of Scott Bushnell, Altman’s producer and creative partner since Nashville, Kansas City having been the last film of their creative relationship.

Perhaps if I programmed this in a batch of neo-noirs and approached it from a different angle it wouldn’t seem so… common (maybe as the bottom half of a double bill with Martin Scorsese’s likeminded-but-superior Cape Fear). But as served up by Robert Altman, one can help but feel that The Gingerbread Man is just a tad light and a tad stale. Where this was free to stray from its unseen source material as much as it wanted, it tacks far too close to convention for it to be a substantial entry into his body of work. To keep his production engine running, Altman tossed some cheap material into the engine to get the train to Valhalla and ended up making an excellent Ron Howard film, which was a rather dubious achievement for a master filmmaker entering the twilight of his career.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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