The Austin Chronicle

The Gingerbread Man

Rated R, 114 min. Directed by Robert Altman. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, Robert Duvall.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 15, 1998

The Gingerbread Man is Robert Altman's best film in many a season, and certainly his best genre piece since The Long Goodbye. The Gingerbread Man is also probably the most stylish and original John Grisham story on film. Thus, it's odd that the movie has experienced so much trouble along the way. After Altman's original cut of the suspense film scored low with test audiences, PolyGram took the film from the director and re-cut it, while Altman threatened to rescind his name from the credits. But then PolyGram's edit scored just as poorly, so the company restored Altman's original cut. Yet, following the film's bicoastal bows back in January, PolyGram has been slow to roll it out to the rest of the country. Additionally, there's the issue of Grisham's authorship, The Gingerbread Man being the first story the novelist wrote directly for the screen. Reportedly unhappy with Altman's final take on the dialogue, Grisham had his name removed; the screenplay is now credited to the pseudonymous Al Hayes. Be that as it may, The Gingerbread Man probably presents Grisham's most morally ambiguous legal-eagle hero to date. Branagh plays Savannah lawyer Rick Magruder, a high-powered attorney with a perfect conviction record and a weakness for anything in a skirt. As the film opens, Magruder's offer to drive Mallory Doss (Davidtz) home after her car has been stolen is just the thing that nudges open the whole Pandora's box of mayhem that is to follow. Nicely counterbalancing the story's brewing emotional, legal, and moral tempest is the ongoing backdrop of Hurricane Geraldo which is bearing down on Savannah. Altman makes good use of the impending storm and milks it for all its thematic, ironic, and atmospheric possibilities. Altman's Savannah differs from the quaint portrait of the city seen recently in Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Altman's Savannah is a town of insidiously creeping Spanish moss, a city of sharp class divisions, and a savvy center of the New South. With the stunning assistance of cinematographer Changwei Gu (Ju Dou, Farewell, My Concubine), Altman creates a moody sense of incipient menace. Small, seemingly inconsequential things generate nagging feelings of concern and dread. It's a beautifully carved tale of suspense. And as usual in an Altman film, the performances are outstanding marvels. Branagh's command of Magruder's well-oiled Southern charms are enough to make you forget he ever had a Shakespearean bone in his body. Embeth Davidtz has never had an opportunity to reveal as many facets of her skills as she does in this role, and Daryl Hannah is practically unrecognizable as Magruder's sharp, buttoned-down and buttoned-up brunette assistant. Robert Downey Jr., as a seedy private investigator, is utterly captivating as the film's second-banana, but Robert Duvall is the show's resident eccentric as the crazy backwoods coot who is Mallory's father. A less-than-tidy (and all-too-tidy) third act mars some of the jagged momentum that has built to that point, but The Gingerbread Man is a tasty treat nonetheless.

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