High-order hackwork

Altman uses his magic to distract us from the same old Grisham-isms in The Gingerbread Man

The John Grisham industry has claimed another heavyweight. A few months back, Francis Ford Coppola delivered up John Grisham's The Rainmaker, and now Robert Altman sails into view with The Gingerbread Man, based on an "original" Grisham screen story--although it's basically a recycling of other Grisham recyclings.

Who would have guessed back in the '70s that Coppola and Altman, probably the two greatest creative forces in American film from that era, would two decades later be toiling in the pulp mills? In modern Hollywood, perhaps more so than at any other time in its history, a director needs a hit to keep on working--not in order to make the films he really cares about, but just to keep working. And who better to land you in the hit parade than Grisham? (I suppose there's also Michael Crichton, but Coppola and Altman don't do dinosaurs--at least not yet.) The Gingerbread Man is probably the most straight-ahead movie Altman has ever made. It's skillful and spooky, heavy on the moss-hung atmosphere, but there's nothing much underneath it all except the same old Grisham-isms.

At least Altman doesn't try to turn Grisham into Dostoevsky. He understands the formulaic nature of the material, and, assisted by the gifted Chinese cinematographer Changwei Gu, he does his best to truss it up with the filigree of dark shadows, pounding rains, mirrored surfaces. He tries to make the film as interesting around the edges as he can because he knows the center will not hold. Altman has always been a magician of the movies, but here his magic is used not so much to transport us as to distract us. What he's doing is a species of hackwork, but it's hackwork of a rather high order. He almost makes you forget the ordinariness of what you're watching.

Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is the film's Grisham prototype--a cocky Savannah, Georgia, lawyer who appears to have it made until his world is undone. He's just won a big case, in which he successfully defended a criminal who shot a cop. Recently divorced, he hooks up with Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a sloe-eyed waitress at his firm's swank victory party, and ends up ensnared in her voluminous family troubles. Her claim that her loony fundamentalist father, Dixon (Robert Duvall), is stalking her brings out the Prince Valiant in Rick. Smitten, he maneuvers to have Dixon rounded up and put away.

Branagh isn't glamorous, and that works to his advantage in The Gingerbread Man. He's no Tom Cruise (The Firm) or Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill)--he refreshes the prototype. Rick may be cocky, but he's as self-deluded as he is self-righteous. His passion for the shadowy Mallory has a fated pull familiar from film noir. He's an ordinary man carried aloft by passion, and when he's endangered, he seems truly vulnerable.

Branagh's ordinary-guy quality soaks up some of the squishier Grisham-isms--like the way Rick is shown to be a peachy-keen dad to his two young children during his court-appointed visitations. Grisham doesn't want to alienate us by suggesting that Rick, despite his penchant for philandering or his success at clearing cop-shooters, is anything less than saintly. Defenders of Grisham's books often tout them as being morally ambiguous, but there's nothing ambiguous about what he's up to--whatever bad stuff his lawyer-heroes are into inevitably dissipates in redemption.

Branagh may not be the archetypal Grisham actor, but he fits snugly into Altman's career-long gallery of valorous, befuddled romantics, best exemplified by Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. In that film, Altman pulled something new out of an old hat. He doesn't try to do that in The Gingerbread Man. It may be his way of saying there's nothing to pull out.

The Gingerbread Man delivers the Grisham goods in a serviceable and compelling way, but the only reason to see it is for a few of the performances, especially Robert Downey Jr.'s boozy private investigator and Duvall's hypercreepy patriarch, and for the Altman "touches." Reportedly it was Altman's idea to work in the giant hurricane--Hurricane Geraldo--that functions as a major player in the piece. It's hokey, but, like the hurricane in John Huston's Key Largo, it's a surefire flashy metaphor. Almost every scene has a TV set in the background broadcasting weather reports, and when we hear a newscaster say, "It's far too dangerous to be out on the streets," the warning carries a double edge.

In most crime thrillers, the director stages a moment of garish violence early on in order to keep the audience edgy. Altman doesn't work that way. The floating ominousness in The Gingerbread Man is all in the atmosphere; we don't need a big bloody shock to set us up. The film is scary in less explicitly violent ways. When the police descend on a dilapidated Georgia mansion in order to root out Dixon and his cult, the frantic, almost noiseless scurrying of the ragtag tramps has a nightmarish charge. So does the scene in which Dixon's crew descends on the mental hospital where he is incarcerated--it's as scary as anything in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. And later on, there's a powerfully unsettling shot of Dixon in a state of ghastly repose as a fire rages behind him.

In moments like these, Altman is functioning as an artist. But most of the time he's playing it safe--at least for him. No overlapping dialogue, no complex soundscapes, no dynamiting of genre expectations. So why was Polygram Films, which made the movie, so nervous about what Altman gave them? Last summer the studio, in a highly publicized move, actually took the picture away from Altman following some lukewarm test-audience reactions and attempted their own re-edit--which didn't test any better. One might think that a director of Altman's stature would be beyond the reach of such movie-company meddling, but why be surprised? Polygram's behavior is a prime example of modern Hollywood at its bottom-line basest. The studio execs apparently never bothered to look at Altman's other movies, or else why hire him to make a Grisham sausage and then complain that there's some Altman in it too?

The irony is that The Gingerbread Man, for all its flair, is too conventional. Altman gave Polygram what they wanted, and they didn't even know it. It's the best of the Grisham movies. Now, if only it were the last.

The Gingerbread Man.
Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Al Hayes; based on an original story by John Grisham. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Berenger, Daryl Hannah. Opens Friday.

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