New York Times

'The Gingerbread Man': Lady-Killer Meets the Wrong Lady


With unexpected success, Robert Altman plays a John Grisham mystery in a seductive new key with "The Gingerbread Man." It's a film that illustrates not only the delicacy of Altman's brooding, richly atmospheric style, but also an important maxim: never trust buzz.

Murderous advance word branded this film as all but unreleasable, but it turns out to be Altman's best genre piece since "The Long Goodbye." And like that film, it turns its setting into a significant character in a tempestuous detective story. The intriguing Savannah that eluded Clint Eastwood's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is very much alive here.

Of all the actors who would love to croon "How you doin', darlin'?" in one of Grisham's Southern morality tales, few must sound less suited to the job than Kenneth Branagh.

But Branagh rises so expertly to this cultural challenge that it becomes easy to forget his Shakespearean side. Clearly intrigued by the quandaries facing one more of Grisham's embattled lawyers, Branagh deftly plays a lady-killer who one night meets the wrong lady. All it takes is a stranger in fishnet stockings on a rainy night to send Branagh's Rick Magruder spiraling from smug success into parts unknown.

With Grisham this time skipping the novel stage to create a story expressly for film (the screenplay is credited to Al Hayes), "The Gingerbread Man" still resembles his books and has much of their same momentum.

It also has the kinds of broadly drawn characters and frequent twists to keep even inveterately free-spirited filmmakers -- first Francis Ford Coppola and now Altman -- on a relatively simple track.

But where Coppola unobtrusively turned "The Rainmaker" into a showcase for forcefully good acting, Altman characteristically does something moodier. Fuller yet more cryptic, his characters drift through this story in the grip of darker forces than those plaguing brash Southern legal talent in the author's other work.

The trouble begins when Rick, a divorced legal hotshot with a flair for attracting attention, meets a mysterious beauty in a rainstorm. Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz, in a sullen, slinky role that departs radically from her earlier primness) has spent the evening working as a waitress for a catering firm.

The occasion was a surprise party for Rick, who has just won a big courtroom victory at the expense of a veteran police officer. But Mallory couldn't care less about that. All she wants, in the midst of the torrential weather that bluntly underscores the film's mood, is a ride home.

When they reach Mallory's run-down house, worlds away from the lavish offices of Rick's law firm, the combined effects of beaded curtains, pouring rain and a whirring fan help create a sexually charged atmosphere. So does Mallory's way of casually peeling off her wet clothes.

Before he knows it Rick is entirely seduced, and next he is galvanized into helping her with her problems. Problem No. 1: Mallory's father, a crazed woodsman living in the midst of a bizarre cult and played with wild-eyed gusto by Robert Duvall.

With this, the wheels of "The Gingerbread Man" are set in motion, and a lively set of subordinate characters is drawn in. Among them: Robert Downey Jr., most amusing as a laid-back private eye; Tom Berenger as Mallory's glowering ex-husband; Famke Janssen as Rick's ex-wife, and Daryl Hannah, acerbic and uncharacteristically pert as a flirtatious aide in Rick's office.

"Is it just one in your rotation of girls who have trouble with too many syllables?" she asks Rick jealously about Mallory.

"Well, how many syllables do you need?" Rick replies. He maintains that bantering tone until he finds himself far too embattled for kidding around.

Altman embellishes the film with all sorts of striking details, from glimpses of Savannah's wildly different economic strata to the sight of Spanish moss on a chain-link fence to the underscored dissipation of Downey's character. Describing himself as "a little toasted," the actor is seen drinking heavily and even nodding out from time to time, with art mirroring life all too noticeably.

More overblown, quite literally, is the conveniently timed hurricane that approaches Savannah as the story becomes more and more turbulent, and more than emphasizes the obvious arc of the story. Post-storm, the film ends on an unexpectedly perfunctory note that echoes too many disillusioned Grisham endings.

"The Gingerbread Man," which is carried most effectively by Branagh's performance, is also given an unusual look by Gu Changwei's camera work. This cinematographer, whose credits include "Farewell, My Concubine," turns the film strange, insinuating and occasionally stark, which eloquently reflects Altman's offbeat approach to the story.


New York Post

The Gingerbread Man

AT first blush, the idea of asking Robert Altman (the king of quirky, independent art cinema) to direct a project based on a short story by John Grisham (the king of streamlined, legalistic, populist potboilers) sounds like a royal blunder - making as much sense as assigning Quentin Tarantino to adapt Andrew Lloyd Webber, or expecting Martin Scorsese to handle Edith Wharton (or did they try that?).

In any event, the biggest surprise about "The Gingerbread Man" is how well this bizarre combination works on screen. This spellbinding thriller provides Altman with one of his most watchable films of recent years and easily amounts to the strongest Grisham adaptation to date.

The secret is the intoxicating sense of texture, atmosphere and authenticity, and the juicy, multidimensional characterizations, which vastly enrich the pulpy plot. Kenneth Branagh leads a superb ensemble cast as a hot-shot Savannah attorney going through a painful divorce and custody fight (with glamorous Famke Janssen).

At a victory celebration for a big case staged by his no-nonsense partner (the surprisingly strong Daryl Hannah), Branagh meets a white-trash waitress with a tummy tattoo (played with supercharged sex appeal and admirable subtlety by the unlikely Embeth Davidtz of "Schindler's List") and ends up falling into bed with her.

Soon he goes to court to protect her from potentially deadly stalking by her demented, religious fanatic papa (the unforgettably chilling Robert Duvall), compelling the unwilling testimony of her smoldering ex-husband Tom Berenger.

But when the dotty, dangerous old man escapes from the mental institution to which he's been committed, the lawyer's life begins to unravel. Neither his loyal associate (Robert Downey, admirably cast as an alcoholic private investigator) nor the local cops can protect the anti-hero - or, ultimately, his innocent kids - from the menace of a tricky plot where nothing is what it first appears to be.

The movie includes a cameo by President Clinton's pal Vernon Jordan. A consummate professional, he is highly persuasive in his brief appearance as a lawyer. Whether he will prove similarly convincing in the new starring role that has been assigned to him in the latest White House scandal remains to be seen.

Working together, Altman and Branagh capture the eerie, decadent charm of Savannah so effectively that one can't help longing to see what might have been had they been assigned (in place of Clint Eastwood and Kevin Spacey) to the misbegotten "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." The grand climax, complete with a raging hurricane, is literally overblown, but Altman's funky visual sensibility and electrifying camera work make even the most melodramatic elements seem fascinating.

Anyone who even vaguely enjoyed such intermittently entertaining Grisham gothics as "The Firm" or "The Client" should run, run as fast as you can, to catch "The Gingerbread Man."


Wall Street Journal

by Joe Morgenstern
*provided by Laura

"The Gingerbread Man" is Robert Altman's original version of a thriller that some frightened studio executives tried to recut after test audiences seemed to find it insufficiently thrilling. Lucky for us that the director prevailed. See this movie for what's on the screen - a truly original, terrifically exciting and gorgeously visualized tale of a lawyer who opens Pandora's box. (The visuals come courtesy of Changwei Gu, the Chinese camera wizard who shot "Farewell My Concubine") But see it also for what it says about the follies of audience testing, a process that often involves empty suits seeking wisdom from carefully selected ciphers.

Starting with a story by John Grisham and then working from the novelist's first movie script ( the final screenplay is credited pseudonyumously to Al Hayes), Mr. Altman has made a Grisham film unlike any other, not to mention an Altman film unlike any other; Hitchcock would have been intrigued, and maybe envious. The setting is Savannah - it's nice to give Memphis a rest - and the action is free of familiar courtroom histrionics. (One competency hearing is staged with an edginess that's unsettling and electrifying at the same time.) The Pandora of the piece is Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a Trashily alluring waitress who's being stalked by Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall), her half- crazed hillbilly father. Kenneth Branagh plays Rick Magruder, a hotshot defense attorney who's too successful to worry about being ethical.

Rick hastens to help Mallory get her father committed after spending one night with her in her tacky house on the wrong side of the tracks (where he fails to notice a flagrant warning sign; the trees in front are hung with Spanish Moss). Hastens is the operative word. Our hero movies so fast, and the movie with him, that all the elements of his downfall click into place before he has the slightest understanding of what he's done. (A hurricane helps to deepen his distress.) Soon it's midnight the a rain swept forest of evil - black walnut to be exact - that's populated by scrfulously sinister old men, by Rick's boozy private investigator, Clyde Pell (Robert Downy Jr.), and by Mallory herself, a woman who richly rewards Rick's taste for trouble.

Robert Altman has long been a godfather to gifted actors; once again he's put together a great cast. I do wish the script had dealt Daryl Hannah a better hand; she's stuck with playing Rick's law partner, i.e. his doggedly adoring sidekick. But everyone else shines, both as an ensemble and as individuals. Mr. Downey finds funny shallows in the depths of Clyde's cups. Mr. Duvall turns a cameo appearance into a minor marvel. Embeth Davidtz is a revelation as she peels away the layers of Mallory's ostensible innocence. (To see how actors can flourish under the right direction, compare Ms. Daviditz's pallid appearance in last week's "Fallen" with her vibrant work here.) As for Mr. Branagh, his performance is so solid, specific and self-effacing that he can sustain our unswerving interest in what's essentially a morality play - about a big heedless babe in unmapped woods.



Hitchcock's creepiest talent was his ability visually to infect the everyday with metastasizing dread, to show how easily chaos could swallow up any idea of order and therapeutically to weird out his less-than-perfect heroes (and audiences) by rubbing their noses in the unreliability of any picture of reality. Now Robert Altman pushes the Hitchcockian envelope in his mesmerizing The Gingerbread Man, deftly teasing out a cautionary parable about the "sins" of shallowness and complacency, of assuming that what you see is what you get.

Rick Magruder's a Savannah lawyer on the move, on the make: We hear him on his cell phone, see his red Mercedes on the road from a God's-eye vantage and his face on TV before we ever meet him in the flesh (an unhammy, focused Kenneth Branagh). By the time he's working a celebratory crowd after a big court win, we've got Rick's number. In his breathless, unanchored race of a life, he takes reality and people for granted, pit stops for refueling. This player is ripe for the kind of fall that blows away every kind of security (a rising storm, Hurricane "Geraldo," mirrors his loss of control), and his descent is triggered by impulsively offering a ride home to, then bedding, a sexy waitress named Mallory (Embeth Davidtz). She's stalked by a dangerously demented dad (eerie cameo courtesy of Robert Duvall), and when our randy knight jumps in to help, it nearly costs him everything, including his two children. Magruder's P.I. (Robert Downey Jr., superb as a sleepy-eyed sleaze) nicknames Mallory "Pandora," and he's mythically right on: This dark lady lets all the really bad stuff out of the box.

Not a shot or scene fails to fascinate, to draw you into mystery. Through the eyes of Altman and Gu Changwei (Chen Kaige's cameraman on Farewell, My Concubine), Savannah, Ga., and its environs become a true Garden of Good and Evil, an unstable medium in which a child or anyone can be "disappeared." Reflections of trees and sky on the scarlet hood of a speeding car, water spreading in carmine-colored puddles, red trucks punching through the frame like fists in our eyes, a maddened face smeared by the crimson burst from a flare potent signals of human transience and vulnerability are everywhere in this beautifully conceived film. Streets, backroads, a cemetery deliquesce in restless Spanish moss and rain-shimmery moonlight; it's always night during Magruder's long fall, with signs of human life leaking slowly away into deeper and deeper darkness.

Don't misunderstand; this movie's no downer. It's Altman's most dynamic film in years and the best yet based on the writings of John Grisham. If Gingerbread disappoints at all, it's because Altman mines such potent mystery from place and character that one expects some greater rent in reality's fabric than is finally unraveled. The world of The Gingerbread Man should end with more of a bang, less of a whimper — but then again, that was the (wrongheaded) criticism of The Long Goodbye, Altman's subversive deconstruction of the world of Raymond Chandler, a quarter-century ago.

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