Doing a John Grisham film seems to be the trendy way these days for an artistic director to make a commercial film. First Francis Ford Coppola tackled The Rainmaker, which is still the finest adaptation of any of Grisham’s works. Now Robert Altman gives his own unique stamp to Grisham’s first story written exclusively for the screen, The Gingerbread Man.
All Grisham films have to have a lawyer, and The Gingerbread Man is no exception. This time around, the lawyer is Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh), a somewhat unscrupulous criminal attorney in Savannah. His career is skyrocketing, but his life has fallen apart. He has divorced from his wife, Leeanne (Famke Janssen), and has a hard time keeping track of his children when they’re in his custody.
Trouble comes Rick’s way when he meets Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a waitress who is being stalked by a man she believes to be her crazy father (Robert Duvall). The old man drove a wedge between her and her ex-husband (Tom Berenger), and now it seems he may be out to kill her. Rick sets out to help her, but slowly gets drawn into the deadly game himself.
Meanwhile as a tempest is brewing in Rick’s life, a real storm is brewing outside. Hurricane Geraldo is building force and heading straight toward the Savannah coast. Hmmm…I wonder when it will hit?
The Gingerbread Man starts well, with a nearly trademark Altman party scene that informs us this won’t be the typical Grisham adaptation. The overlapping dialogue weaves a rich texture of Savannah life, and is an excellent backdrop for the film. Unfortunately, as the storm brews outside, chunks of the movie get torn away like debris in gale-force winds. While the film is thrilling over two-thirds of the way through, the film’s finale is a whimper of incredulity.
The cast is top notch, involving us even though the characters are never quite endearing. Shining out among the talented cast are Duvall, who gives the eerie coot a note of authenticity, Robert Downey Jr as a booze-ridden private eye, and Daryl Hannah as Rick’s legal assistant.
The film is neither the typical John Grisham tale, nor the typical Robert Altman film. Although involving a lawyer, the film is more personal and compelling than most of Grisham’s work. It’s good to see the protagonist as something either than a fresh idealist just out of law school. The film is much more linear than most of Altman’s work. While the opening carries his distinctive touch, as the film progresses it gains a greater sense of anonymity.
Still, even with its flawed ending, The Gingerbread Man is an enjoyable tale to watch. Solid directing and an excellent cast make for a thrilling initial 90 minutes, and even when the good actors start doing stupid things, at least you can enjoy the good acting.