Gingerbread Man, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Combine the talents of director Robert Altman and actors Kenneth Branagh and Robert Duvall, and you have the apparent recipe for a motion picture worth waiting for. But, although The Gingerbread Man is a finely-tuned example of mainstream entertainment, and holds the audience's interest for most of its running length, it is a little disappointing. Perhaps the problem is that the story was written by John Grisham, and, as one might expect, it doesn't stray far from the standard Grisham formula. Or maybe it's that Altman has gotten lazy recently. Following the less-than-stellar Ready to Wear and Kansas City, The Gingerbread Man (a blatantly commercial effort) isn't likely to appease those questing for the next Altman masterpiece.

Kenneth Branagh, stepping into a rare contemporary role (and sporting a stable Southern American drawl), is Rick Magruder, a top-notch Savannah-based defense attorney who hasn't lost a case in eight years. Since his successful record has resulted in part from his ability to chew cops apart on the stand, he's not one of the police department's favorite citizens. One night, following a big victory celebration, as Rick is making his way through a torrential downpour, he encounters Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a waitress whose car has just been stolen. Rick offers her a lift home and a shoulder to cry on. Soon, her whole sad story pours out: her deranged father, Dixon (Robert Duvall), has been stalking her, and she's afraid for her life. Rick, instantly sympathetic because of his infatuation, agrees to help her get an order of commitment for Dixon. But the wily old man proves to be more dangerous than the lawyer expected, and soon his two children are in peril. And, on top of everything else, Hurricane Geraldo is bearing down on Savannah.

The Gingerbread Man starts out strongly by defining the characters, establishing the setting (following Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this is the second recent atmosphere-soaked thriller to transpire in Savannah), and anchoring the somewhat convoluted storyline. One of Altman's strengths, most evident in films like Nashville and Short Cuts, is character development, so it's no surprise that we are introduced to a gallery of interesting individuals. Past the setup, as the plot gathers steam, the movie takes on the characteristics of a traditional thriller, with such familiar elements as a mysterious car that tails Nick, a drunk private investigator (Robert Downey Jr.), a damsel in distress, and children in jeopardy. Altman ratchets up the tension during this section of the film, providing a few genuine edge-of-the-seat moments.

It's in the final half hour that The Gingerbread Man starts to lose its way. The denouement and ending, while in keeping with what we expect from a Grisham-penned tale, are pedestrian, offering only contrived surprises. Nevertheless, in part because I had invested so much into the characters over the film's better first two-thirds, I was able to accept, if not applaud, the resolution. The plot has its share of logical flaws, but that's standard for all but the very best thrillers.

The Gingerbread Man's undeniable primary strength is the level of acting. Branagh, whose training in Shakespeare gives him a tendency to overact (see Mary Shelly's Frankenstein if you don't believe me), gives a perfectly-modulated performance under Altman's direction. Branagh's Nick is strong, decisive, and obviously human. Embeth Davidtz, who has essayed a number of roles since her eye-opening turn in Schindler's List, does her best work here since the Holocaust drama, easily surpassing her bland turn in the recent Fallen. Solid supporting work is turned in by Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., and, surprisingly, Daryl Hannah as one of Nick's law partner. (This may be the only time Hannah's acting hasn't stuck out like a sore thumb.) The only flat portrayal belongs to Famke Janssen (as Nick's ex-wife), but at least she's better here than she was in Deep Rising.

At its best, The Gingerbread Man evokes memories of Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense who used every tool at his disposal to trick, cajole, and manipulate the audience into a state of heightened anxiety. One of the mechanisms employed here by Altman is the weather -- it always seems to be raining, and the approach of the hurricane promises even more wind and water. Fortunately, the storm sequences are impressively filmed and serve to enhance the atmosphere, rather than drown it (like in Hard Rain).

Although The Gingerbread Man has its faults, there are enough fine moments and solid performances to more than balance them out. While Altman aficionados may be disappointed by the conventional nature of the production, fans of writer John Grisham (who gets story, but not screenplay, credit) will probably feel right at home. The legal thriller has become Grisham's home field, and The Gingerbread Man, with an accomplished director at the helm, is as worthwhile as anything he has helped bring to the screen. The result is an entertaining and sporadically engrossing two hours.

Gingerbread Man, The (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1998-01-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1