Pulp Friction

The John Grisham industry has claimed another heavyweight. Late in 1997 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 story, although it's basically a recycling of other Grisham recyclings.

Who would have guessed back in the Seventies that Coppola and Altman, probably the two greatest creative forces in American film from that era, would twenty years later be toiling in the pulp mills? In Hollywood now, 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 Jurassic Park 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 Grishamisms.

At least Altman doesn't try to turn Grisham into Dostoyevsky. 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, and mirrored surfaces. He attempts 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 subspecies 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 lawyer who appears to have it made until his world is undone. He's just won a big case for his firm, 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 working 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 here. He refreshes the Grisham prototype -- he's no Tom Cruise (1993's The Firm) or Matthew McConaughey (1996's A Time to Kill). 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 Grishamisms, like the way Rick is shown to be a peachy-keen dad to his two young children during his court-designated visitations. Grisham doesn't want to alienate us by suggesting that his protagonist, 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 the author is 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 careerlong gallery of valorous, befuddled romantics, best exemplified by Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe in 1973's The Long Goodbye. In that film Altman pulled something new out of an old hat. He doesn't try to do that here, which 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 1948 Key Largo, it's a sure-fire 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 close in on a dilapidated Georgia mansion to root out Dixon and his cult, the frantic, almost noiseless scurrying of his ragtag group has a nightmarish charge. So does the scene in which Dixon's followers descend on the mental hospital where he is incarcerated. And later there's a powerfully unsettling shot of Dixon in a state of ghastly repose as a fire rages behind him.

In moments such as 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 the director after some lukewarm test-audience reactions; then it attempted its own re-edit, which didn't test any better. One might think that a filmmaker 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 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 vehicle 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 it wanted, and the studio 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. Screenplay by Al Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Berenger, and Daryl Hannah.


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