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Grisham's 'Gingerbread Man':
Guilty of Complex Melodrama

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Gingerbread Man
Embeth Davidtz and Kenneth Branagh lead the all-star cast in "The Gingerbread Man." (Polygram)

Robert Altman
Kenneth Branagh;
Embeth Davidtz;
Robert Duvall;
Daryl Hannah;
Robert Downey Jr.;
Tom Berenger;
Famke Janssen
Running Time:
1 hour, 54 minutes
For violence, language and sexual situations
"The Gingerbread Man" takes its name from a children's fable about a cocky dough boy who escapes the oven only to become snack food for a duplicitous fox. The picture's ginger-haired hero (Kenneth Branagh) either forgot or never heard this nursery gothic, which serves as the template for John Grisham's implausible indictment of the legal establishment.

Unlike the five other films bearing Grisham's moniker, this uneven cautionary thriller was never a best-selling novel, but originated as a screenplay. Grisham stories usually pit a young idealist against the jaded establishment, but this scenario -- reportedly much doctored by director Robert Altman -- travels in more worldly circles in stickier climes.

Here, protagonist Rick Magruder (Branagh) is up to his briefs in ethical ooze. The Savannah trial lawyer shows no remorse over his latest unscrupulous victory, the successful defense of a notorious cop-killer. A divorced father of two, Rick has focused on furthering his career and satisfying his libido at great cost to his personal life and his family.

In a lively opening party sequence, Rick laps up the praise of his cronies along with the booze. Unbeknown to the liquored-up lawyer, Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a member of the catering staff, is watching his every move. When he finally leaves the affair, he encounters Doss in a fury over the theft of her car.

Rick offers her a ride, an act of kindness that quickly turns into a sexual fling with the spooky femme fatale. A bump in the night gives him a scare, but a search of her shabby bungalow turns up nothing. Mallory attributes the sound to her daddy (Robert Duvall), a barefoot schizophrenic who has taken to stalking her.

Rick, already hooked on the vulnerable young woman, persuades her to put Pa away, which she accomplishes with the help of Rick and his close associates. Alas, the old coot escapes from the asylum and sets out to avenge himself on those who conspired against him as well as Rick's colleagues and children.

The film comes to a satisfying climax involving a showdown between Pa and Rick. The trouble is that the picture is far from over when suddenly we find ourselves watching another movie -- a punishing, overly complex melodrama in which the Gingerbread Man receives his comeuppance.

Of course, that's how the cookie crumbles when the lawyer-bashing Grisham is holding the pen. Altman may have done some heavy editing, but his vision is finally too grand for a canvas so small. Altman managed to enrage film noir fans with his subversive 1973 film, "The Long Goodbye," but seldom strays beyond the bounds of this conventional material.

He does, however, provide damp and sultry atmospherics, including the aptly named Geraldo, a hurricane that draws nearer to Savannah as the jeopardy increases. And when it comes to Spanish moss, Altman just can't seem to get enough of the stuff, which dangles like a thousand feather boas from the live oaks, stately homes and chain-link fences of the old city.

Boasting an accent as Southern as hospitality, Branagh is convincing as a peccadillo-prone barrister caught up in an obsessive affair with Davidtz's edgy temptress. And Robert Downey Jr., in a supporting role as a cheeky private eye, brings energy and fun to the proceedings. The cast also includes Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger and bless my soul, if it isn't FOB Vernon Jordan. He plays a high-powered lawyer who is trying to keep a friend out of court. If nothing else, "The Gingerbread Man" is a tale to suit the times.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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