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The Boston Phoenix Cookie Cutter

Altman catches "The Gingerbread Man."

By Peter Keough

MARCH 9, 1998: 

THE GINGERBREAD MAN. Directed by Robert Altman. Written by "Al Hayes" based on an original screenplay by John Grisham. With Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, and Robert Duvall. A PolyGram Films release. At the Nickelodeon (tentative), the Coolidge Corner, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

The signs weren't good for Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man, his new film based on a John Grisham screenplay. The studio, PolyGram, had tested his version with audiences, found it wanting, and re-edited it. Altman threatened to take his name off the picture. (Meanwhile, Grisham took his name off the screenplay.) The studio tested the new version, found audiences preferred the original, and released Altman's cut. For which we can be thankful. The Gingerbread Man is the kind of canny, bittersweet, densely layered film noir that hasn't been seen, well, since Altman's own The Long Goodbye in 1973.

Kenneth Branagh licks his chops over the Southern Comfort venality and magnolia-sweet Savannah accent of Rick Magruder, a defense lawyer notorious for winning the kind of civil-rights cases that don't endear him to law-enforcement officials. Divorced, with two kids, Rick, much like the good old boy now in the White House, tends to misplace shrewdness when a short skirt is involved. When the skirt is on -- however briefly -- a damsel in distress, all judgment goes out the window.

The damsel is Mallory Doss (a tiny, wounded, nearly feral Embeth Davidtz), who's first seen poking her nose out of the background (one of Altman's few indulgences in his trademark overlapping dialogue and depth-of-field crowd scenes) as a caterer for a party celebrating Rick's latest high-profile victory (he's obtained an acquittal for a man who shot a police officer). Lonely and liquored, Rick bumps into her after her car has been stolen out in the rainy night. He gives her a ride home, then, taking no heed of the ominous cobwebs of tape protecting the windows of her home from the oncoming Hurricane Geraldo (a pathetic fallacy Altman works, from the storm's name onward, with wry and overweening effect), he escorts her inside. There, in a scene reminiscent of Julianne Moore's notorious confession in Short Cuts, Mallory tearfully tells her sad story while stripping down to the altogether.

It seems she's being terrorized by her nutso father, Dixon (played by Robert Duvall as Boo Radley without the Radley), a backwoods charismatic with a cadre of hirsute hillbilly followers -- imagine the cast of Hee Haw in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest -- and an aversion to shoes. Despite the protests of his level-headed assistant, Lois (Daryl Hannah, a revelation as a brunette in a suit and glasses), and his booze-addled investigator, Clyde Pell (Robert Downey Jr., hilarious as an enigmatic creep), Rick takes on the case, has Dixon committed, and shows a more than professional interest in the welfare of his client.

She seems to need it. In one of Altman's few lapses into mannerism, Rick comforts a distraught Mallory as she relates her dad's favorite bedtime story -- "The Gingerbread Man." Intercut are spectral shots of Dixon's homeless militiamen swarming through a graveyard (Altman's use of the Savannah setting as compared to Eastwood's in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the difference between night and day) with bolt cutters to release their leader from the mental institution. Threats and acts of terrorism follow, first against Mallory, inevitably against Rick, and he's isolated with his children in a nightmare of seemingly sourceless, nocturnal terror as the police force he humiliated in court looks on in smug indifference.

The Altmanesque themes of comeuppance and alienation add little gravity to what is essentially a sardonic, almost Coen Brothers-like romp of misfortune. Despite the relentless fustiness and torpor of the Spanish moss, decaying mansions, tomblike interiors, and ceaseless rain, The Gingerbread Man may be Altman's most narrative-friendly film to date -- just as it is the most substantial of Grisham's works on screen. Altman keeps you guessing who will do what to whom via brilliant reversals of expectation and by submerging key elements in the background (it also helps that everybody except Rick seems to be driving the same car). In a brilliant endangered-children scenario he protracts the inevitable by means of a pay phone, a motel window, a passing truck, and the haunting recurrence of the key color red. It's a perfect balance between storytelling immediacy and aesthetic detachment.

It's only with the storm-tossed, Cape Fear-like finale that the plot and the character motivations start to crumble like the proverbial cookie and a regrettable misogyny taints the movie's spicy tang. No matter -- by then Altman has again proven himself one of the leading geniuses in American filmmaking. Far from being half-baked, The Gingerbread Man is a consummate cinematic confection.

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