Friday, September 21, 2012

Neglected Gem #24: The Gingerbread Man (1998)

The Gingerbread Man, from 1998, is one of Robert Altman’s least known movies; even most of his fans probably don’t know it exists. Altman encountered a familiar problem with the screenwriter when he rewrote the script on the set, but the fact that this time the writer he alienated was John Grisham, adapting his own story, added up to lousy PR for Altman when Grisham had his name removed from the credits. (The listed screenwriter, Al Hayes, is an invention.) It didn’t help that the preview screenings were poorly received – and that the recut version, after the studio, Polygram, snatched the picture back from Altman, didn’t fare any better. At that point Altman got his movie back, but without the blessing of the distributor.Yet the movie is a sensationally effective off-center thriller.

Altman’s relationship to Grisham’s material parallels Sam Peckinpah’s to the dead-in-the-water Robert Ludlum plot he got saddled with in his last picture, The Osterman Weekend (1983): he doesn’t scuttle it, exactly, but he transforms it by discovering a theme for it (theme is almost as foreign a concept to Grisham as character), by marinating it in atmosphere, and by using it to set loose a truly dazzling exhibition of directorial technique. The Gingerbread Man is set in Savannah, and its hero is a glib, skillful lawyer, Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh, in a loose, energized performance), who’s just come off a controversial, high-profile case. The trial has made him the least popular citizen in the county in the eyes of the police community, because he got a criminal off and crucified a cop in the process (for shooting the perp). Magruder’s personal life is a shambles: his ex-wife Leeanne (Famke Janssen) is hot to gain full custody of their two kids, and she shows up at his firm’s celebration of his victory with her divorce lawyer on her arm, just to piss him off. Rick’s own behavior that night isn’t any cannier: he offers one of the waitresses (Embeth Davidtz) a lift home, after she tells him her car has been stolen, and winds up in bed with her. Everyone in the office sees him show up the next morning in the same suit he left in, and Leeanne, who’s hunting for ways to prove he’s an unfit parent, sizes up the situation correctly when he arrives late to pick up the kids. And when he tries to connect with the waitress again, calling up the catering service to obtain her home number, it suddenly occurs to him that he doesn’t even know her name.(Branagh does a lovely job with this small moment of recognition, when Rick suddenly sees in himself the immaturity and instability that others – especially Leeanne – have been accusing him of.)

Robert Altman
Grisham, that boring moralist, probably wanted to set up Magruder to score points off him: as the plot thickens, not only does he pay for the potshots he took in court at an honest cop doing his job, but he finds himself making a choice in the heat of a violent confrontation that echoes the cop’s. Altman doesn’t reside in Grisham’s moral universe, however. He shifts the values of the story so that we feel that what happens to Rick Magruder could happen to any one of us, not that it’s the wages of his arrogance. Altman and Branagh make Rick immensely likable; the morass he ends up in reflects a kind of innocence. Mallory Doss, the woman who takes him home with her after the party, is a neurotic, enigmatic character, and if her scarred-waif persona operates as a turn-on for him, it’s equally true that his compassion pulls him into her troubles. When they arrive at her place – a kind of post-hippie gothic cottage with beaded doorways and creeping patches of refracted light (the work of production designer Stephen Altman and photographer Gu Changwei is exemplary) – her car is safely parked outside. But she blames its brief disappearance on her father. She describes him as a monster, terrifying to her since childhood, who now holes up at a compound in the woods with a cult of malevolent old men like himself. As she paints Dixon Doss, he personifies the gingerbread man (bogeyman) of the stories he told her to frighten her when she was a little girl – the menacing presence that you can never shake free of, that’s always lingering over your shoulder. At that point Magruder’s hooked: he reaches out to console the terrified girl inside Mallory, and when their relationship turns sexual, he ignores all the danger signs. Altman and Embeth Davidtz make sure that we’re conscious of these dangers, though: as she pulls off her shirt, the strange blue tattoo on her arm suggests either a totem or a warning; we can’t be sure which. Davidtz’s ambiguous (and, I think, superb) performance – she’s simultaneously seductive and retreating – hints at dark lawyers we can’t read and a damaged core that can’t be healed, as with other memorable women in Altman movies: Shelley Duvall in Thieves Like Us, Sandy Dennis in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, and especially Nina Van Pallandt in The Long Goodbye, which The Gingerbread Man harks back to in a number of ways. The cat meandering through Mallory’s house is likely an intended visual link to that earlier noir, where Elliott Gould’s cat disturbs his sleep and finally takes off on him. Gould’s Philip Marlowe, clinging to a code of ethics that is as anachronistic in 1970s L.A. as a suit of armor, is one or two steps behind throughout most of the film. Rick Magruder, thinking with his soft heart as well as with his hard-on, misreads every piece of information that comes his way. That is, he reads only the side that’s presented to him.

Embeth Davidtz & Kenneth Branagh

Rick goes to court with Mallory to have her father put away. Robert Duvall, balding but his hair streaming down the back of his skull in unkempt pigtails, plays Doss, who shows up at is hearing in a pair of red pajamas with a cheering section of his buddies at the back of the courtroom. It’s an interplanetary episode, darkly comic and very unsettling. It’s after Rick gets him committed that the suspense plot begins in earnest: Doss’s pals spring him and both Mallory and Magruder start receiving threatening messages. Duvall is terrific, and Tom Berenger shows up in an amusingly low-key performance as Mallory’s ex-, who is so reluctant to help her out with testimony about the antics and propensity for violence of his one-time father-in-law that Magruder is obliged to treat him as a hostile witness. And the infinitely inventive Robert Downey, Jr. plays Clyde Pell, the cheerful, alcoholic private dick Rick hires on the case, who appears in shades and a snakeskin jacket and, lending his own special vision to the proceedings, declares Doss “a few beers shy of a six-pack.”

Grisham’s plots always degenerate into chases, and on some basic level none of them makes sense. Altman’s direction, breathtaking at its best, papers over the idiocies in the story and shifts the movie into something jangling and nightmarish. He introduces Rick to a plateau of experience that alters forever his view of himself and of the world he’s always presumed he’s in control of. In one startling, disturbing sequence, Altman intercuts the liberation of Dixon Doss – the oldsters from his compound root through a graveyard under willows lit to look like otherworldly skeletons and slice their way through the fence sealing off the psychiatric hospital he’s been confined to – with Mallory and Rick in bed; she sits up bolt upright, scared out of sleep by a dream about her gingerbread-man father. The way Altman shoots the old men creeping silently toward Doss’s room, they could be figures in her dream. Grisham hated The Gingerbread Man, but it’s the best picture anyone’s made of his work (second place would go to The Client). Altman takes a John Grisham tale into a realm darker than anything Grisham has ever acknowledged.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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