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Altman's Tasty 'Gingerbread Man'

By Stephen Hunter
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)

Director:
Robert Altman
Cast:
Kenneth Branagh;
Embeth Davidtz;
Robert Duvall;
Daryl Hannah;
Robert Downey Jr.;
Tom Berenger;
Famke Janssen
Running Time:
1 hour, 54 minutes
R
For violence, sexual incidents of a graphic nature and tattooed women
You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe he doesn't need new tricks if he can make the old ones work. And old dog Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "The Player") still knows a thing or two.

Old tricks are the proud subtext in "The Gingerbread Man," from a story idea by John Grisham, a tale of complex, violent shenanigans deep-South style, all of it turning around a heroic if headstrong lawyer. The film is a mystery-thriller, in the film noir style, with reverses, twists, surprises, the odd outburst of violence and the convenient arrival of a storm just at the climax. It's one of those movies that's great fun to watch, even if it decomposes more totally in your mind with each step out of the auditorium.

This is the Altman not of his great films, but of the TV shows he directed in the '50s, like "The Detectives" and "M Squad." It's lean, spare, vividly atmospheric and quickly paced. His best old trick may be his effortless sense of place and culture. We're in Savannah, Ga., in the company of a cocky lawyer named Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh), divorced, slightly horny, perhaps too hotheaded for his own good. This is instantly believable, from Magruder's attachment to a car that signals arrested development (a red 'Vette), to his charming ways with the office help and occasional bad judgment (picking up and sleeping with a waitress at a catered party at his law firm). It's even more believable given the offhand ease and perfect dialogue mastery of Branagh in the role, who just doesn't do a Southern accent but a coastal northern Georgia one.

Also done well, if slowly: the emergence from this believable milieu of a story that we yearn to swallow even as we're ticking off things wrong with it. Magruder, having slept with the beautiful if somewhat embittered young waitress Mallory Doss (played by Embeth Davidtz, who isn't quite trashy enough), conjures up a higher purpose to justify his lust. She is the target of a demented, abusive father (Robert Duvall), a backwoodsman lost to hostile irrationality, who haunts her, steals her car, strangles her cat, and seems to threaten fatal violence at any moment. Magruder responds with the tool he knows: the law. On her behalf, he successfully shepherds a commitment order through the system. But the old man escapes, and then comes after – the sense of feral vengeance is similar to "Cape Fear" – not his daughter but Magruder and his kids. Magruder responds hotly; a gun appears, a killing takes place, complexities mount.

Of course all along we are aware of small inconsistencies. Mallory's availability – her car was swiped, just as Magruder was leaving the party – seemed too pat. There was – dead movie giveaway – too big an actor in too small a role. Seemingly innocently, the waitress keeps feeding him information just when he needs to know it. It's actually she who hands him the gun at the crucial moment. Then there's a slimy divorce lawyer dating Magruder's ex-wife, and a custody battle seems in the works. Clearly, something just beyond his awareness, but not ours, is going on.

In the most primitive of ways, "The Gingerbread Man" works. It falters now and then with scenes that feel out of place – at one point Branagh punches out a janitor as he steals his kids from school, an act that seems unrelated to any aspect of him we've seen before. And you wonder: Why doesn't this guy, supposedly so smart, catch on earlier?

But at no place does "The Gingerbread Man" collapse into complete scoffability. What it's selling most of all is its director's assurance at manipulation of narrative film conventions. So powerful are these and so confident is he that he beguiles you into leaning back and letting him work.

At no time, however, does it rise into distinction. It is what it is: a night at the movies, that gives you a nice vacation for less than a ten-spot. One cannot think about it too hard – particularly about the disproportion between the elaborateness of the ultimate plot and the tininess of its squalid objective – but one should not run before it with a little bell, shouting "Unclean, unclean," either.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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