Somehow Altman lets The Gingerbread Man get away from him. Never the direction, which holds up until the end–and seeing Robert Altman direct a fight scene is something to behold–but the plotting. The film starts high, thanks to the compelling plot and the performances, but then the plot gets more and more… not convoluted, but desensitizing. Once Kenneth Branagh’s kids are in danger, it’s clear there’s nothing special about the plot, since it’s such a genre standard. The film also loses, around that section, as the storytelling becomes more set piece oriented, the strange texture Gingerbread Man had before. It was clearly, both through style and script, a Robert Altman movie. Branagh, always the protagonist, was not the whole show. Then he becomes the whole show and the movie loses something.
It never regains it either. Even with one nice moment or two, there’s the epical storytelling key turn and then it’s liftoff and it’s Branagh racing to discover the truth, just like every other thriller involving a lawyer who gets involved with a client. At that point, it’s sort of clear the story came from John Grisham. Or maybe I’d just like to think Altman wouldn’t have made a pedestrian conclusion. It’s possible, since it is Altman, he was pandering to see what it was like to pander (Altman’s disinterest in his finished product, good or bad, is always a little stunning).
The acting is, with one and a half exceptions, fantastic. Branagh’s performance (as a Southerner) is excellent. Embeth Davidtz makes a great white trash femme fatale, Daryl Hannah is good as Branagh’s (long suffering) associate. Robert Downey Jr. has a great time in a flashy private investigator role–not spinning Downey off into his own movie is probably Gingerbread‘s greatest tragedy (as is not sticking with him as much as possible). Even Tom Berenger is good in a small part. The two exceptions? Well, the half is Robert Duvall, who does his crazy thing again here. Duvall looks the part and I suppose he’s fine, but it’s a lame casting choice and a poorly written character. Then there’s Famke Janssen, who’s less convincing as a parent than as a Southern belle (her accent is less convincing than Marge Simpson as Blanche). Luckily, Branagh is frequently around to save Janssen’s scenes.
The Gingerbread Man is a fine filmmaking exercise from Altman, has some great acting, and has some great cinematography. But its production quality is not matched by the rote plot. Altman, had he taken the film at all seriously, could have done a lot more with it.
Directed by Robert Altman; written by Clyde Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham; director of photography, Gu Changwei; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Jeremy Tannenbaum; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.
Starring Kenneth Branagh (Rick Magruder), Embeth Davidtz (Mallory Doss), Robert Downey Jr. (Clyde Pell), Daryl Hannah (Lois Harlan), Tom Berenger (Pete Randle), Famke Janssen (Leeanne Magruder), Mae Whitman (Libby Magruder), Jesse James (Jeff Magruder) and Robert Duvall (Dixon Doss).