Enamored by the musicality of conversation and the dynamic of gentle improvisation, Robert Altman imbued his works with the messy charm of an actual bull session, bristling with the energy of a barroom brawl where the words fly as fast as the hypothetical fists. The linguistic sprawl of his work always felt organic, certainly a more natural alternative to the stilted delivery of most motion picture conveyances, where lines of dialogue are broken by an unnecessary edit or awkward pause. His ears could always ferret out an honest repartee and he respected his performers enough to free their characters from the prison of the printed word and let them create genuine moments.
His strengths seemed suited for a project like The Gingerbread Man, one so enraptured with Savannah’s richly accented drawl and manner of speech, allowed to linger on each bourbon-soaked syllable and Southern-fried idiom. Altman took full advantage of this abundance of local color, mirroring the eccentricities of the geography through the banter of his characters, aligning the pace of the film with the slow roll of storm clouds and the smoky lighting of a lawyer’s chamber. His attention to detail is impeccable, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of coastal Georgia in every frame, but his obsession with authenticity proves to be a distraction within the confines of genre, resulting in a thriller of muddied logic and broad performance, flailing wildly between excess and ennui.
The story, culled from an abandoned John Grisham manuscript, focuses on Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh, unmannered and sophisticated), a high-profile Southern lawyer caught between a blossoming career and a floundering marriage. After a watershed victory in Florida, Magruder returns home for an office celebration in his honor, leaving the party with a hefty buzz and mysterious female companion in tow (a saturnine Embeth Davidtz). Desperate and drenched from the seemingly incessant downpour, our damsel in distress waxes pessimistic, cataloging domestic woes that outshine Magruder’s, nearly all relating to her volatile, delinquent father. The list of complaints runs the gamut from troublesome to humorous, boasting everything from violent outbursts to kleptomania to a distaste for footwear. Magruder might have laughed along with the audience, if he wasn’t so interested in playing the protector and drooling over the seductive Mallory Doss’ constant state of undress.
With his current relationship in purgatory (marital and parental) and legal career on hiatus, Magruder spins one passionate evening into an eternal flame, taking on his lover as a client, single-handedly tracking down her cult-leader father (Robert Duvall, channeling his best Boo Radley) and making a sterling case for his insanity and institutionalization in family court. Also along for the ride on this conflict of interest is Mallory’s curmudgeonly ex-husband (Tom Berenger), a blue-collar roughneck who fancies himself a tough guy, but seems to have run afoul of the relatively frail defendant on many an occasion. If that wasn’t suspicious enough, he corroborates Mallory’s story in court to the nth degree, contradicting his previous exclamations of distaste for his spouse and the legal system in general.
Magruder is too blinded by lust to detect the coincidences in Mallory’s story, but the audience sees the writing on the wall and can smell a set-up well before the final act, foreshadowed by sledgehammer visual cues that feature our nefarious female lead lighting a smoke in unison with the crackle of thunder. In his defense, Mallory’s father does make for the perfect fall guy, living in squalor with a pack of equally disheveled hobos and raving like a wild man in the courtroom. How Duvall manages to bring a certain dignity to this role borders on the miraculous, especially after participating in a prison break sequence that would be better suited for a film about Burke and Hare than an Altman ensemble drama.
By the time the action shifts into high gear and Magruder is forced into a game of cat-and-mouse with a cult hell bent on retribution, we’re asked to indiscriminately go along for the ride or left questioning the film’s rationale. Suspension of disbelief is reasonable, especially with works that make up for logic with visual and emotional enlightenment, but The Gingerbread Man is far too enamored with its own telegraphed plot twist to break free into the realm of popcorn cinema.
On a purely technical level, it’s something of a triumph, faltering only in invocation of the written word. The photography is tasteful and evocative, capturing the mahogany hues of Magruder’s office and the flicker of Zippo lighters igniting behind rain-soaked windshields. The best shots mirror Magruder’s obsessions, traveling gracefully up Mallory’s fishnet stockings, revealing small bits of flesh through puckered rectangular holes. Seedy motels and dive bars are also adorned with the glow of neon and artificial light, adding a warmth and texture to the visual composition.
Conversely, the sound mix is rather undefined and messy, diminishing important discussion beneath a wave of background clatter, deadening the usually lively blend of voices in Altman’s previous work. Matters aren’t helped by an unnecessarily jarring and thunderous Mark Isham score, likely utilized to mirror the perpetual patter of rain or inject some suspense into a deliberately paced film.
The performances, in most cases, accommodate the pace, particularly Branagh and Davidtz, who vary between smoldering sexuality and unmitigated fear. Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t fare as well in a supporting role, channeling his drunken P.I. from the pages of some torrid novel, never gelling once with the audience or a scene partner. An embarrassment of casting riches are left buried beneath the leads, strapped with underwritten characters or victimized by an overly complex plot. Duvall, Berenger and Daryl Hannah are all sequestered to the background, struggling to make an impression in fleeting moments at arm’s length from the meat of the story.
We’re also left to tread water at a distance from the core of The Gingerbread Man, all emotional connections obscured by a constant downpour of rain and tonal incoherence. The behavior and actions of the characters are just as ornamental as the setting, acting as nothing more than decor for an unsubtle and occasionally absurd potboiler. It’s a shame, because the mechanics on display are stunning and often quite brilliant, but Altman never sees the forest for the trees, bogging himself down in the minutiae of set dressing instead of focusing on the machinations of plot.
The Gingerbread Man (PolyGram Films, 1998)
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman (screenplay) and John Grisham (manuscript)
Photographed by Gu Changwei