The Gingerbread Man
directed by Robert Altman
(Polygram, 1998)

Rick Magruder has everything a hot-shot shyster needs: a cell phone, a cool car and a story by John Grisham. On top of that, he's just come off a big win in court -- a police shooting case -- and a big score, with one of the waitresses from his victory party.

Both those successes, however, are about to come back to haunt Magruder, whose prowess in the courtroom and over cocktails is not matched by common sense in his personal life.

In many ways, the lawyer film is to the '90s what the detective film was to the '30s and '40s. So it should come as no surprise that Robert Altman, who displayed his mastery of the hard-boiled who-done-it in 1973's The Long Goodbye, should put his stamp on the legal thriller.

The veteran director gets off to a quick start with a slow motion camera that grazes a black and white landscape. Slowly, color oozes in and we learn we're following Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) home to Savannah, Ga., from Jacksonville, Fla., where he's won his case but lost the cooperation of the police, who feel he's putting the scum of the earth back on the streets.

Yet things are just starting to get interesting for the young attorney, who's soon recruited by waitress Mallory Doss (Elizabeth Davidtz) to help her put her lunatic-fringe father (Robert Duvall) in a local psychiatric hospital. Before long, Doss the elder has escaped, Magruder and his children are being tailed and photos of them turn up on Magruder's desk with the eyes cut out.

This would be enough to scare the pants off most viewers even before Altman begins putting his trademark touches on the film.

The first is the look. Altman, who had moviegoers clutching for drinks with the bleached-out desert look of Three Women, goes for gloom and doom this time. Using dusky camerawork and even duskier music, the director captures the queasy sense of a landscape in which you can never quite see all you need to see, or be sure you're seeing what you're looking at -- even before a tropical depression -- named Geraldo, no less -- hits town.

The atmosphere is no lighter at old man Doss' isolated hunting camp, where Doss and his fellow fringers hang out and plot their next blow against the system. The fear hits fever pitch when the fringies creep through a cemetery to free Doss, while Altman's camera cuts back to Mallory and Magruder desperately trying to revive their one-night stand.

Add to this Robert Downey Jr. as Magruder's part-time P.I., part-time straight man -- plus enough plot twists to make you want to keep a scorecard -- and you have the formula for some old-fashioned thrills with some newfangled twists.

Altman's films are an uneven lot. At times they're much less than the sum of their parts -- even while some of their parts are always great. The Gingerbread Man is no exception. The characters aren't exactly new, the irate-police theme has seen better days and only Duvall's charismatic presence makes the fringe-group figures viable villains.

Yet for all that, Altman handles Grisham with almost enough style to give him substance.

That leaves The Gingerbread Man a bit short of Altman's M*A*S*H or The Player, but still a mighty tasty treat in its own right.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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