starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Daryl Hannah, Robert Downey Jr.
screenplay by Robert Altman (as Al Hayes), based on a story by John Grisham
directed by Robert Altman
by Bill Chambers It's nice to see Robert Altman doing studio work again. After 1980's disastrously-received Popeye, the director steered clear of mainstream Hollywood entirely. Perhaps this is a chicken-egg scenario and it steered clear of him, but no matter: his return to a more formulaic brand of filmmaking showcases the director at his best and not-so. The Gingerbread Man is based on a dusty screenplay by John Grisham; curiously, for such an airport writer, several Important Filmmakers have adapted Grisham in the past (Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, and Francis Coppola), but nobody's done it with more personality than Altman.
Altman's rapport with actors is evidential here, though a significant amount of improvisation is not. The easygoing performances he coaxes from company players Daryl Hannah (Atman's short-lived TV series "Gun"), as Magruder's loyal assistant Lois, and Robert Downey Jr. (Short Cuts), as womanizing snoop Clyde, nevertheless lack the looseness we've come to expect from an Altman ensemble. Branagh demonstrates somewhat untapped range here with a flawless southern drawl, and his eagerness to play Magruder as an occasionally charmless dimwit is admirable--if the acting is straight-arrow professional, at least the characters are proto-Altman antiheroes. Davidtz makes for a subtle femme fatale, convincing us that she's oblivious to her sexuality even as she uses it to get what she wants. The epitome of this difficult portrayal arrives near the start of the picture, when Mallory chooses a moment she's au naturel to beg for Magruder's compassion.
Magruder's paranoia is unfortunately one of the film's least persuasive elements, both in terms of plot and character. Altman is no stranger to mental breakdown and anguish (witness his deft handling of Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) in The Player), but in The Gingerbread Man, they serve the resolution a little too comfortably--it's the climax feeding the foreshadow. Altman's trademark zooms and wide angles are in full effect and breathe fresh air into the Grisham program. He also drenches every exterior in increasingly harsh rain and it doesn't feel like an atmospheric gimmick--the constant downpour serves to alternately draw us deeper into the story and put us on edge. It's a soundtrack. (The film's literally sunny epilogue is atypically optimistic of Altman and also jarring to the senses.) Why only two-and-a-half stars? Because there are now as many lawyer movies as there are lawyer jokes, and no matter the auteur, it won't change the fact that movies in the vein of The Gingerbread Man are ultimately played out. Originally published: August 3, 1998.