The Gingerbread Man

on January 23, 1998 by Kim Williamson
   Polygram originally was to make its stateside distributing debut with this latest from Robert Altman, and in a way the Dutch concern is lucky it had a release-delaying contretemps with the director over the final cut. Whatever the virtues of the Polygram cut (since shelved) might have been, and however long it will take Hollywood's creative community to forgive the newcomer for mistreating one of its most acclaimed creators, the much-flawed "The Gingerbread Man" does not make for a film to launch a new studio. And, in the end, the two parties in the editing fracas--Altman and Polygram--emerge unscathed. Simply put, the fault is neither's.
   Simply put, the fault lies with John Grisham, who here adapts his own (un)original story. The tale: A successful Southern lawyer (Britisher Kenneth Branagh, losing his accent to do contemporary but bringing the same verve he brings to Shakespeare) takes on as a pro-bono client a white-trashy young woman (South African Embeth Davidtz, losing her accent to do American but retaining that classical quality so memorable from "Schindler's List") whose crazed-with-religion father (Robert Duvall, perfectly underplaying a character that even Boo would have offed) is tormenting her, she says. From the moment lawyer and lass meet, the audience feels it's a setup, and whatever intrigue and terror the story might have built is permanently undercut. One just waits for the strands to get tied.
   Or, in this case, untied; the story has enough holes to sink a liner. Trying to keep his craft seaworthy, Grisham adds faux-literary touches (his theme references, however unsuccessfully, the children's tale of the gingerbread man) and a whole lotta shakin'--a hurricane has been battering the players' burg, and Grisham apparently thought the touch so swell that he has it return. Meanwhile, Altman--aside from his odd choice of project--does fine work, both with his camera and with his troupe. It's all for naught, though, as Grisham has the last word with the conclusion: He makes his stand-in protagonist into a suffering hero, when that was never the character's question. In fact, his lead never had a question to be answered, leaving "The Gingerbread Man" adrift as little more than 120 minutes of nifty storm sounds.    Starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Famke Janssen and Tom Berenger. Directed by Robert Altman. Written by John Grisham. Produced by Jeremy Tanenbaum. A Polygram release. Thriller. Rated R for some sexuality, violence and language. Running time: 120 min.
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