THE GINGERBREAD MAN (Robert Altman, 1998)

Robert Altman, the brilliant director of The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975), wanted to have his name erased from the credits of The Gingerbread Man, and he did manage to hide his authorship of the script behind the pseudonym Al Hayes. In short, Altman repudiated this film, which is based on a story that John Grisham wrote for the screen. In many ways it is indeed a terrible film, trading in noir clichés as it unravels its farfetched plot amidst Savannah, Georgia’s heat-baked streets and rancid swamps. But there are a couple of points of interest to the dank proceedings, and, besides, the film manages to generate a degree of spooky danger I haven’t experienced in an American film since Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971). Until the story slides into silliness and a string of anti-climaxes, all awash in the wet winds of Hurricane Geraldo, The Gingerbread Man just might scare the heck out of you.

The movie is unified by a theme: the humbling and humanization of an arrogant hot-shot attorney, Rick Magruder, beautifully played by Kenneth Branagh. Outside the courtroom, Magruder has three chief attributes: quick intelligence; a weakness for women; absolute love for his small, restless children, a son and a daughter. The first of these attributes, many times, fails to withstand the claims of the other two. Altman may have a clever trick up one leg of his pants, for Branagh’s Magruder strikes me, at least, as a sympathetic facsimile of the American president at the time. You know: What’s-his-face.

The mainspring of the plot is Magruder’s love affair with a pro-bono client, a waitress at a gathering in his honor, who embroils him in a series of adventures involving her father, a barefoot recluse who is part of a reactionary hillbilly cult of old geezers. (It’s an anomaly: a cult of loners.) From the start, this girl, Mallory Doss, doesn’t convince us with her tales of her father, Dixon, who presumably periodically steals her car, and even, presumably, breaks into her apartment and hangs her cat. (This is the first hanged cat I had to suffer since Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs—although I vaguely recall, in between, a cat nailed to a door in some film or other.) Indeed, that’s part of the point; Mallory is unbelievable—she nonchalantly sighs, “I was fond of that cat,”—but whenever he thinks with his pecker Magruder will believe almost anything. Regrettably, his sincerity and passion in the courtroom, however misguided, are contagious; the system bends to his adolescent boy’s distorted view of things. (I presume this is intended as general criticism of the U.S. legal justice system.) As a result, Magruder succeeds in having a judge commit Mallory’s father to a mental institution for medical treatment (i.e., drug therapy). (Sloughing off his shoes in court doesn’t help the old man’s case, either.) The only evidence against Dixon is the seemingly reluctant testimony of Mallory’s ex-husband, Pete, that Dixon once pounded him into a hospital after he, Pete, accidentally took a sip out of Dixon’s coffee cup. In-laws!

Unhappily, Rick’s legal victory here opens up a Pandora’s box of problems for him, once Dixon’s cult springs him from the hospital. Suddenly, there are all kinds of threats; Rick’s kids are kidnapped. The police won’t lift a finger to help Rick because of a prior legal victory of his at the expense of one of their own, who defended himself with gunfire against a shooter. This is the court victory that generated the celebration at which Rick met Mallory.

Rick and his children’s mother, Leanne, are either divorced or divorcing. Leanne is really unfair and unkind to Rick, but he, we intuit, wasn’t the best of husbands. Leanne’s current beau is Rick’s divorce attorney; Rick, it seems fairly clear, had an affair with his secretary during his marriage to Leanne. The film is hard on lawyers and their out-of-court morals—but humorously so, until the film passes into routine action and loses its sense of humor, its Altmanness.

The resolution of the mystery is idiotic and not funny.

The hint of Bill Clinton in Magruder is one of the film’s points of interest. Another is the fact that, except for one silent couple at the party, there are no blacks in the film. The next year, Altman made Cookie’s Fortune (1999), perhaps the most probing (and bleakest) American film about contemporary race relations in the South, or anywhere else in the States, ever.

Embeth Davidtz, the South African actress I had hoped never to see again after Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), plays Mallory. She does an indefensible job in a role so tricky and decked in red herrings that it may have been, to be fair, unplayable. Robert Duvall plays her father; he is just as bad. Robert Downey, Jr., plays Clyde Pell, the private detective whom Magruder employs. Downey, as usual, is very dear.

Altman’s characteristic long-shots and subtle camera movements—one might almost call them inflections—are accomplished and mesmerizing. Color cinematographer Changwei Gu’s muted tones help create mood and tension.

The special effects crew, though, should be taken to task. I didn’t buy the hurricane for a second.

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