I was moved as well as entertained by Robert Altman’s work in The Gingerbread Man. Here is the crankiest, most iconoclastic American director of the past 30 years – the sore and proud survivor of many victories, many defeats – devoting himself quite selflessly and effectively to telling an old-fashioned story. The Gingerbread Man, based on a John Grisham yarn that was fleshed out by Al Hayes, is an example of neo-noir (southern, or moss-hung, division). In Savannah, a hotshot criminal lawyer, Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh), falls for a neurotic and very available young woman (Embeth Davidtz) and undertakes to protect her from the aggressions of her crazy old father (Robert Duvall). Magruder thinks he knows all the angles; part of the pleasure of the movie lies in watching this cocky but likable man get himself bogged down in an intrigue thicker than mulligatawny soup. Altman lays aside his usual strategy of mixing a variety of narrative strands; he forgoes his chattering, overlapping profusion; instead, he sticks to a single, complex narrative, driving it ahead furiously through many ambiguities and mysteries, pushing the actors in and out of the most relentless tropical storm in the history of the movies (the outtakes must be full of sneezes).
There is, I hasten to add, a great deal of Altman’s characteristic observation and humor in the background: The law-office scenes are rich with innuendo and flirtation, and the crazy old man is surrounded by a gaggle of bearded loonies who cackle with glee over his various outrages. Still, despite these divertissements, the movie forges ahead on the conventional strengths of script, acting, and atmosphere. At the risk of impiety, I can’t help wondering if Altman might not have made a greater number of good movies if he had determined to become not an artist but a commercial director; the man has a real gift for conventional storytelling, and the result of its full exercise is something like unmitigated pleasure.
Grisham’s story is a legal-world variant of the kind of classic forties stuff in which a smart guy falls for a screwed-up broad and turns into a rueful sap (the late Robert Mitchum would have played the role with heavy-lidded authority 50 years ago). It is saved from cliché by the way virtue and vice have become, in the character of the lawyer, inseparable; Magruder is trapped by decency as well as by greed and lust, by his professional victories as well as by his personal recklessness. Kenneth Branagh slips into the accent and persona of this fast-talking Georgia shyster without the slightest strain. He’s quick, amusing, a man whose attention flickers like a water bug across the surface of a hundred calculations. In the past, everything has always gone easily for Magruder, and his ease leads him into folly. As the character, losing his grip, reaches the rock bottom of despair, Branagh, shocked, becomes more and more interesting, and he’s surrounded by strong actors in support, including Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, whom Altman has cast with malicious accuracy as, respectively, a dissipated private eye and a vicious old son of a bitch.