January 23, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The Gingerbread Man

Current Status
In Season
Tom Berenger, Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Daryl Hannah, Famke Janssen
Robert Altman
Robert Altman
Drama, Mystery and Thriller
We gave it an A-

Early in Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man (PolyGram), Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh), a middle-aged attorney, dapper, charming, and a bit unctuous, enters the swank faux-traditional offices of his Savannah law firm and encounters a surprise cocktail party being thrown in honor of his having just won a big case. As Magruder, oiling himself with Jack Daniel’s, proceeds to work the room, rubbing shoulders with colleagues and flirting with any sexy woman who happens to come his way, Altman packs a denser, spicier New South atmosphere into one party scene than Clint Eastwood jammed into all of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

By the time that Magruder, standing in a rain-swept parking lot, meets Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), one of the party’s waitresses, and agrees to drive her home, the film’s thriller pedigree seems almost an afterthought. Is this meeting as random as it appears, or is the disheveled, desperate — and leggy — Mallory trying to seduce Magruder? The real seduction is Altman’s. In The Gingerbread Man, the first movie to be based on a story composed directly for the screen by John Grisham (the script itself is by Al Hayes), he lures us into thinking that we’re watching a supple character study. The movie, though, is about to begin brimming with Grisham-esque twists. What’s new, and bracing, is the degree to which those twists entwine our emotions.

It may be a coincidence, but there’s an undeniably pungent irony to the fact that Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, two of the artistic titans of ’70s Hollywood, have, within three months of each other, joined creative forces with Grisham, whose name has rarely, if ever, been linked to the word art. Tempting as it is to interpret the coincidence cynically, as proof that filmmakers like Altman and Coppola must, in the bottom-line ’90s, knuckle under to the clout of the box office, such is the magic of movies that the cynicism seems misplaced. John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, Coppola’s recent courtroom drama, was the director’s most relaxed and craftsmanly work in years. Now comes The Gingerbread Man, a trickier and even more satisfying entertainment.

The film’s intrigue begins with its hero. Branagh, chewing on a plummy Georgia accent, makes the divorced, boozing, and womanizing Magruder a smug yet touchingly vulnerable legal player. Magruder becomes Mallory’s lover and protector after learning that she is apparently being stalked by her father (Robert Duvall), a crazed derelict who leads a scuzzy pack of homeless cohorts. Before long, Magruder’s two young kids are being threatened as well.

The danger is at once primitive and complex, as Magruder’s legal hubris — his willingness to smear honest police officers — circles back to haunt him. Altman employs his trademark roving camera eye and naturalistic sound to lend a discursive, loose-limbed spontaneity to standard thriller situations. His rhythms didn’t jell in the static, mannered Kansas City, but this time you can feel his mojo working. His craftiest move, apart from the use of Mark Isham’s moody electronic score, was simply to draw out his actors the way he always has. He gets multilayered performances from Davidtz as the glamorously depressive Mallory, Tom Berenger as her angry estranged husband, and Robert Downey Jr. as Magruder’s morally ambiguous detective crony. The result is that Grisham’s gambits, while as hokey (and, in some cases, as far-fetched) as ever, now pivot on an authentic human axis. The final half hour achieves true suspense, as Altman orchestrates a furious hurricane into a visual symphony of mystery and fear. In The Gingerbread Man, Altman hasn’t transcended John Grisham, exactly. He’s refined him. A- — Owen Gleiberman


The Gingerbread Man STARRING Kenneth Branagh Embeth Davidtz RATED R 115 MINUTES

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