The second consecutive John Grisham yarn to have been directed by a heavyweight auteur, "The Gingerbread Man" is an adequate thriller that reveals an adventurous filmmaker working obediently within the boundaries of conventional material rather than trying to burst beyond them.

The second consecutive John Grisham yarn to have been directed by a heavyweight auteur, “The Gingerbread Man” is an adequate thriller that reveals an adventurous filmmaker working obediently within the boundaries of conventional material rather than trying to burst beyond them. Engaging enough through its first hour, this tale of deceit, manipulation, misguided lust, kidnapping and murder down South goes astray with an excess of melodramatic implausibility as the climax approaches. Soft ultimate impact and lack of true star names among the colorful cast will spell just OK B.O. for this nicely mounted but rather ordinary second domestic release from Polygram.

Brimming with neurotic, deeply flawed, highly unreliable characters, story differs from the usual Grisham scenario in that it does not pivot on a bright, idealistic young attorney who makes his name by taking on the establishment. The protagonist, along with most of those in his orbit, is a morally compromised figure who is a successful but less than shining representative of the legal profession, and brings calamity down upon himself and his family by letting his libido take precedence over common sense.

After a lovely, semi-abstract aerial credits sequence, pic plunges into a trademark Altman party scene, in which Savannah lawyer Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is celebrating his court victory defending a man who shot a local cop. Crucially present are three beautiful women of past, present and future importance to him: his ex-wife, Leeanne (Famke Janssen), with whom he has two children; Lois (Daryl Hannah), his law partner and close friend; and Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a fidgety member of the catering staff.

Rick has more than a few drinks, and, when Mallory discovers her car is stolen, he offers the young lady a ride home, which turns into a hot one-night stand. Pic’s early section is engaging, sexy and generally promising, as Altman layers the visuals and particularly the soundtrack in a dense manner that creates a subtle, rich audiovisual texture.

From here, however, the film becomes the most narrative-driven of any Altman picture and increasingly like something almost anyone else could have directed. Hooked on the dark, high-strung Mallory, Rick learns that her nut-case father, Dixon (Robert Duvall), seems recently to have started threatening her again. Taking an all-too-personal interest in her dilemma, he puts the weight of his law firm behind Mallory, whom he scarcely knows, has Dixon picked up by the police and subpoenas the young woman’s belligerent ex-husband, Pete (Tom Berenger), to testify against the crazy old coot in court.

Dixon is rightly put away, but, with the help of his fellow loonies, escapes from the asylum, whereupon the lives of everyone who conspired against him are put into severe jeopardy. As a hurricane starts hitting Savannah with full force, Mallory’s car is set afire, Rick begins to receive menacing messages and, when he believes his kids are in danger, spirits them out of school, which triggers a warrant for his arrest. The children’s subsequent disappearance sets Rick on a personal vendetta against old Dixon that eventually encompasses multiple casualties.

Unfortunately, the more the film, in league with the weather, tries to whip things into a melodramatic frenzy, the more routine and less plausible it becomes. Grisham’s scenario, which was reportedly rewritten sufficiently by Altman during production to result in the pseu-donymous screenwriting credit Al Hayes, thrusts the story forward on an increasingly narrow track, which clearly runs counter to the rhythms generally found in an Altman film. The director doesn’t try to fight the relentlessness with which the events snowball, and in fact stages them very professionally. But there is a trumped-up quality to the action climaxes that is disappointingly perfunctory, and the story’s final revelation is simultaneously far-fetched and unsurprising.

Pic’s wet, shadowy atmospherics are a pleasure to wallow in. Making his Yank debut, preeminent Chinese cinematographer Changwei Gu, who has lensed multiple films for both Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”) and Zhang Yimou (“Ju Dou”), employs an agreeably subdued palette here on the generally drenched Savannah locations. Score and soundtrack are up to the director’s always high standards.

Brandishing an OK Southern accent, Branagh is convincing as a lawyer whose drunken dalliance results in entirely unanticipated consequences. Davidtz has a disturbingly haunted, raw-nerve-endings quality that well justifies Lois’ warnings to her partner against becom-ing more deeply involved with her. Robert Downey Jr. enlivens the proceedings whenever his private dick character turns up, Duvall makes the unhinged dad genuinely scary in a brief turn, and Hannah, despite an undemanding role, responds to Altman’s direction with different notes than she’s ever hit in previous films.

The Gingerbread Man

(Thriller --- Color)

Production

A Polygram Filmed Entertainment release of an Island Pictures and Enchanter Entertainment production. Produced by Jeremy Tannenbaum. Executive producers, Mark Burg, Glen A. Tobias, Todd Baker. Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay, Al Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Changwei Gu; editor, Geraldine Peroni; music, Mark Isham; production design, Stephen Altman; art direction, Jack Ballance; set design, Glenn Rivers; set decoration, Brian Kasch; sound (Dolby), John Pritchett; sound design, Randle Akerson, Richard King; associate producer, David Levy; assistant director, Alexandra Perce; casting, Mary Jo Slater. Reviewed at Polygram screening room, Beverly Hills, Jan. 6, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 min.

With

Rick Magruder - Kenneth Branagh Mallory Doss - Embeth Davidtz Clyde Pell - Robert Downey Jr. Lois Harlan - Daryl Hannah Pete Randle - Tom Berenger Leeanne - Famke Janssen Libby - Mae Whitman Jeff - Jesse James Dixon Doss - Robert Duvall
Camera (CFI color), Changwei Gu; editor, Geraldine Peroni; music, Mark Isham; production design, Stephen Altman; art direction, Jack Ballance; set design, Glenn Rivers; set decoration, Brian Kasch; sound (Dolby), John Pritchett; sound design, Randle Akerson, Richard King; associate producer, David Levy; assistant director, Alexandra Perce; casting, Mary Jo Slater. Reviewed at Polygram screening room, Beverly Hills, Jan. 6, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 min.
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