The Cookie Crumbles in Altman’s The Gingerbread Man (1998) | Blu-ray Review
From the B-side of Robert Altman’s filmography is his 1998 attempt at neo-noir with The Gingerbread Man, based on an original screenplay by John Grisham, re-worked to such an extent the lawyerly scribe receives only a story credit (with pseudonym Al Hayes used for the script). Source material was often the fodder Altman would chew up and spit out into his own particular dismantling of whatever genre he was working within, such as his evident disdain for Edmund Naughton’s source novel upon which his 1971 classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller (review) was based (which Altman references as the most basic template from which to work from). His feelings for Grisham’s narrative beats feels about the same, for this is surely an Altman neo-noir, drained of the romanticized menace one might expect yet utilizing the same familiar tropes in what amounts to a tawdry-ish tale about a smarmy divorced lawyer who gets drawn into the mire of an inscrutable femme fatale’s familial woes.
Twenty years onward, The Gingerbread Man resists an argument for recuperation, despite the enjoyment derived from seeing how Altman’s approach works within a 1990s narrative package which, upon first glance, looks like a high-profile direct-to-video knock-off (enhanced partially by its fanciful nursery rhyme title). In conversation with something like his classic The Long Goodbye (1973), however, this later work arguably yields more inspiring elements.
In short, Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is a self-satisfied lawyer who gets himself involved with a troubled woman, Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz) who claims she is being terrorized by her father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall), a homeless schizophrenic man who lives on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia with a group of other homeless men in a bizarre communal gang. Eventually, Magruder must assist in putting the man behind bars. But when Dixon escapes, Magruder finds himself targeted.
Clearly, Branagh’s Magruder is to be aligned with Altman’s favored motif throughout the film—the persnickety alley cat, and there are many felines proliferating the film’s periphery. When Branagh stumbles upon the grisly sight of Mallory’s hanged cat dangling from her rafters, Altman is basically showing us Magruder’s mirror image as this is also his point of no return for his involvement in Mallory’s turmoil.
Casting, as with all of Altman’s major productions, yields its own kind of intrigue. Branagh, reveling in a Georgia drawl as smarm inducing as Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, had also done his nebbish Woody Allen impression the same year in Celebrity. He’s an appropriately caddish anti-hero (in the vein of a William Atherton here), and Altman does his best to make us despise him. At every turn, Magruder typifies his white male privilege and the entitlement which serves as his ultimate undoing (which reaches a crescendo as he punches out a black school employee when illegally extracting his children). Something’s obviously askew about Mallory Doss, which Altman clues us in on immediately as we observe her steal a glass ash tray from the party she’s working at attended by Magruder, then throwing herself into damsel in distress mode to secure a ride home with him. Altman chose the less recognizable Embeth Davidtz as Mallory (known for Schindler’s List or the kindly teacher from the Roald Dahl adaptation of 1996’s Matilda while she starred opposite Denzel Washington in 1998’s Fallen), styled into a sort of sultry scamp, and juxtaposed deliciously with Famke Janssen, cast as Branagh’s exasperated ex-trophy wife.
There are weirder instances in the supporting players, with Daryl Hannah starring as a sympathetic colleague in his law firm and Robert Downey Jr. as a smug private investigator whose only real skills seem to be in seduction. Tom Berenger pops up as a suspiciously involved personality as well. And then there’s a deliciously creepy turn from Robert Duvall, a shoeless, string-haired hobo who seems a logical extension of Boo Radley, the To Kill a Mockingbird specter Duvall made his screen debut playing. More entertaining than the narrative’s predictable beats are the swaths of dialogue floating in and out of focus from the support staff at Magruder’s firm.
Kino Lorber presents The Gingerbread Man in 1.85:1 as part of their Studio Classics selections. Picture and sound quality are well attenuated in this new transfer, particularly with cinematographer Changwei Gu’s (Farewell, My Concubine) formulation of Savannah. An audio commentary track from Robert Altman and the film’s original theatrical trailer are included.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆