Kenneth Branagh, Robert Altman, and John Grisham Make for Strange, Neo-Noir Bedfellows.



It was the late 1990s, when you couldn’t swing a dead cat at a multiplex marquee without hitting a John Grisham legal thriller adaptation.  The expected filmmakers and stars staked their claims to this lucrative property: Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Pollack, even Francis Ford Coppola.  Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Denzel Washington.  It might’ve been a surplus of beige wallpaper, but at least it was comforting, and not of poor quality.

And then, like a non-threatening hurricane, in comes maverick Robert Altman, tossing his big floppy hat into the courtroom.  Though the aged maker of M*A*S*H, Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller had come and gone out of fashion several times in his career, here he was still flying high from his 1992 bolt from the blue, The Player.  So a production company gave Altman, a director known for a style so effectively loose, he notoriously tosses the script and is bored with convention, a handsome budget to make a lawyer-on-the-run potboiler.  Kudos on the opportunity.  But still, one can’t help but ask, Mr. Altman… What’s an iconoclast like you doing in a mahogany-bound place like this?

For yours truly, the certain train wreck of the oil & water & gasoline combination of leading man Kenneth Branagh, author Grisham, and Altman was too much not to openly wonder about.  Here we had three distinct creatives of the era, all more or less at the peak of their powers, but nevertheless amusingly difficult to imagine together in the same room.  How could The Gingerbread Man possibly go right??  

Kenneth Branagh, Daryl Hannah, and Embeth Davidtz in THE GINGERBREAD MAN.

As it turned out, quick and uncertain unanimous word was that it didn’t.  Hence, I acquiesced, my rabid disinterest in John Grisham overpowering my Altman fandom (obviously fair-weather then, anyhow) or overall morbid curiosity.  It would be seven bucks better spent elsewhere.  But also, twenty-plus years of wondering in the back of my mind, “What if the initial verdict came back too harshly…?

At the time, The Gingerbread Man utterly sank like a lodged flare in the water, burning bright for its limited moment, but sinking down, down, down all the same.  So quickly was the court to wash its hands of the film that its awkward place in its still-evocative niche (that of the “John Grisham movie”) never truly took hold with the general public as it kinda sorta did with me.  Apparently, this particular blend of gingerbread was really just white bread- bland, forgettable, and destined to go on sale for ninety-nine cents.  (Exhibit A: The previously viewed DVD rack at Hollywood Video, circa late 1999).

Enter Kino Lorber and their all- encompassing Studio Classics line of Blu-rays and DVDs.  The Gingerbread Man, it seems, has done its hard time, and is now being released anew.  It’s just the opportunity this critic needs to finally get to bottom of this admittedly cold case.  As it turns out, the film is more of a neo-noir caper than any kind of legal thriller.  Fans of John Grisham can forgive this all the more easily, since The Gingerbread Man merely derives from a story idea by the author as opposed to one of his best-selling novels.  (Screenplay by Al Hayes).  His name, however, was a primary selling point back in the day, and even today is ensconced on the Blu-ray’s cover. 

Brit/Irish actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh plays lawyer Rick Magruder, a hotshot divorcee and father of two small children who seems to spend more time chasing ladies than in court.  Following a few loosening drinks at a social gathering, Magruder, to his chagrin, finds himself leaving alone.  But there, wandering in the rain and reeling from her car having just been stolen, is the desperate and strangely beautiful Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz).  

A ride home leads him into her unfortunate conundrums of her ratty ex (Tom Berenger) and her oddball father (Robert Duvall) who’s fallen in as a kind of smalltime cult leader, living rough and without shoes in a flophouse for scraggly, wild-eyed men.  There’s no money in it, but what the heck- this cute girl needs help.  But of course, Magruder’s red blooded logic only leads him, and his family (his ex-wife is played by Famke Janssen) and co-workers (Daryl Hannah, Robert Downey, Jr.), into a world of trouble.  All the actors are doing their best with the regional accent, and Altman seems to grow increasingly bored as the predicable plot mechanics devour the proceedings, but all the while, no talent is forsaken.

By the end of it all, let the record show that although The Gingerbread Man is indeed a minor work in the filmographies of all parties involved, it’s not the over-flavored concoction I imagined nor the flavorless forgotten reject of yore.  It’s Altman coasting effectively enough through potboiler territory, dragging an impressive cast and crew in his still-awake wake.  Though not much of a “Film Admission” outside of my own mind, I’m glad to have finally seen The Gingerbread Man, as these days, any undiscovered Altman is a welcome thing to some degree.  Thankfully then, not only can one take in the unique filmmaker’s cinematic voice via this new Blu-ray release; one can also sit with his actual voice, as KL has thankfully included his director’s commentary track, obviously recorded back in the day.  On it, Altman isn’t unengaged- forthcoming, in fact-  although, true to Altman’s form with his numerous other DVD commentary tracks, there are long gaps between his comments.  

Making it’s stateside HD debut, this film looks tremendously well kept, and is just as well presented.  The sound of the lingering hurricane flares up and appropriately envelopes while not engulfing.  The Southern scenery of Savanah, Georgia makes for a rightly deceptive environ of false security.  The movie may not be the greatest of shakes, but as a neo-noir in which lack of surprises is its biggest surprise, it gets the basic job done.  For fans of any of the considerable talent involved, there’s now no reason not to catch The Gingerbread Man.

Images used in this review are used only as visual context for the film. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray review copy.