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The Gingerbread Man

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Review by Harvey Karten
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"The Gingerbread Man" may not imitate the daily headlines as much as "Wag the Dog," but it does show into what troubles a man can be dragged if he thinks with a part of his body other than his head. Current events in American politics notwithstanding, sexual conduct with the wrong person by people high in authority has driven narratives ever since Agamemnon was murdered by Clytemnestra. In this movie, in which John Grisham bypassed the book and scripted directly for the screen, a lawyer who has never lost a case in eight years becomes careless and forfeits the one litigation that would hurt him the most. "The Gingerbread Man" takes Grisham somewhat afield of his usual tales: this time his film is directed by Robert Altman, who is known to forego structure for atmosphere: who does just that in adeptly capturing the shadowy, sinewy, and stormy surroundings of Savannah. But Altman forgoes the laid-back, discontinuous structure of his most famous film, "Nashville" in favor of a taut, suspenseful, and occasionally violent work with a surprisingly effective twist in its concluding quarter hour.

Backed up by a team of major performers like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Berenger, Robert Duvall and the upcoming Embert Davidtz, Altman's film opens with his signature scene, a large, catered party--a surprise to celebrate lawyer Rick Magruder's big victory in gaining the release of a man who shot a cop. It's the sort of case that does not make lawyers into the heroes of police precincts and prompts even a private investigator hired by Magruder to quip (about an attorney who committed suicide) that at least one guy in the profession has a conscience.

During the party, Magruder's speech slurs over as he sloshes down some drinks and, when on a stormy night he witnesses a car theft at the expense of its owner, Mallory Doss (who served as part of the catering staff), he drives her home in his chic red Mercedes. After a tempestuous night of lovemaking, the divorced Magruder takes a liking to his new friend and decides to help her out, having learned that the alleged car thief is her own, insane father--who has been stalking her for years. His efforts to get the nutty father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall) locked up include his hiring of a laid-back private investigator, Clyde (Robert Downey jr.), the subpoena-forced testimony of Mallory's hostile ex-husband, peter Randall (Tom Berenger), and the witnessing of several fires including the blowing up of Mallory's car.

Altman's direction, however taut, takes its time in exposing the lives of his characters, particularly the dilemmas faced by the rich and successful lawyer whose problems do not allow him to enjoy his position to the fullest. Chief among these difficulties is his own marital situation: he is divorced with custody of two small children whom he loves and his ex-wife Leeanne (Famke Janssen) is anything but supportive of his custodial visits. Unwisely, he rejects the advice of his associate in the law firm, the statuesque Lois (Daryl Hannah), who warns him regularly about his activities with bimbos and obviously cares quite a bit for him.

Branagh, it turns out, can enjoy slumming. The English actor takes a breaks from his usual Shakespearean roles to adopt a southern American accent and a goatee, and appears in virtually every one of photographer Changwei Gu's scenes. While Mr.Changwei expertly capitalizes on Savannah's old- world beauty, too many vistas take place in poorly-lit indoor locations, including Magruder's pine-panelled law office and the bar which constitutes Clyde's hangout and pick-up spot for bimbettes. Daryl Hannah plays well against type as the bespectacled lawyer's aide as does the lovely, slim Embeth Davidtz who may not be quite the angel she was with Denzel Washington in "Fallen."

The first part is the more interesting one: the picture turns increasingly melodramatic and difficult to accept. Far too often the heavy rain and routine, melodramatic actions remind us of the cloudburst-soaked film, "Hard Rain," and we lose the wit and clever dialogue that make the initial scenes particularly Altmanesque and thereby compelling. Mark Isham's music is most effective, becoming menacing as the movie progresses into the dark Savannah night.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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