Courtesy Photo
Opened: Friday, March 6, 1998
Rated: R

Directed by Robert Altman

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey, Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, Famke Janssen & Robert Duvall

"The Gingerbread Man"

I don't think Robert Altman got final cut on "The Gingerbread Man."

Last year, the notoriously maverick director of "M.A.S.H" and "The Player" was in a heated battle with releasing studio PolyGram over cuts he refused to make to this John Grisham thriller -- a battle which eventually forced the film's release to be pushed back from fall.

Whoever won slipped up somewhere. "The Gingerbread Man" teeters on the verge of becoming gripping for almost two hours with smart performances and a enigmatic storyline, but when the credits roll you're still waiting for the plot to really take hold and make any kind of sense at all.

It seems there's a catering waitress (Embeth Davidtz) with a unstable hobo father (Robert Duvall). She a little whacked herself and goes through some crazy mood swings after she starts sleeping with a bitterly-divorced, slick Savannah defense lawyer (Kenneth Branagh).

There's some kind of conspiracy regarding Davidtz's inheritance -- it seems ditzy daddy owns quite a few acres of valuable black walnut forest -- but the details of the scheme were apparently lost to a chain saw in the editing room.

Either the studio locked Altman out and went crazy cutting or Grisham's pop fiction was just too middle-of-the-road for this director and the plot got lost in wide swaths of style -- like serving Spam on your best china.

Or perhaps it was both.

Altman gives the film heavy mood. Suspense hangs in the air without the aid of incidental music, and the gray, overcast colors -- which become a hurricane late in the film -- hark of an 1940s detective movie.

He gleans almost subconscious anxiety from seemingly incidental developments, like when Branagh and Davidtz think they're being stalked by her penniless, vagrant father, yet the person following them is taking pictures with a very expensive camera. Something more sinister must be going on.

But as the suspense builds he also makes stupid mistakes with the story. The lawyer's conspiracy paranoia leads him to dump his cell phone (he doesn't want to be traced) and hijack his kids to a motel for safe-keeping, yet he doesn't notice they've been followed half way across Georgia by the most conspicuous, beat-up old Ford.

Altman's trademark zooms and it's-all-in-the-eyes close-ups are prominent throughout, giving his fans a sense that the movie is going to get somewhere eventually if we'll just be patient. But it never does.

However, he does inspire several brilliantly understated performances that carry the film until the story becomes nonsense in the last couple reels.

Branagh mixes perfectly an overt but gentlemanly lust with the blackguard flavor of a ruthless defense attorney. He somehow creates a sympathy for a selfish man torn between his underhanded line of work, his appetite for young women and his half-assed dedication to his kids, who he'll spend an hour with on the way to the office, thinking he's earning his good father badge. And, by the way, his soft Georgia accent is spot on.

Robert Downey, Jr., in a supporting role as a creepy private eye in Branagh's employ, continues to prove himself a great actor, regardless of his substance control problems.

Robert Duvall's fly- caught- in- a- jar performance as the waitress' father is supurbly menacing, and Daryl Hannah is surprisingly credible as another lawyer, sporting dark red hair and heavy specs for an intellectual look.

Altman's forte has always been depth of character, so it's no surprise that normally one-dimensional Grisham characters are layered and complex in "Gingerbread Man." But it's a pity the director couldn't manage to make sense of the plot, which is like a puzzle with too many missing pieces.

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