'Gingerbread' tasty but not filling

March 06, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Much was made in recent months of Robert Altman's tussling with Polygram Films over the final cut of "The Gingerbread Man," his adaptation of a John Grisham story.

Altman wound up getting his way, and "The Gingerbread Man" in theaters is apparently the one he wanted. But it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about. "The Gingerbread Man" is a good film, perfectly respectable in every way, but great art it isn't.

Kenneth Branagh, best known for his vigorous adaptations of "Henry V" and "Hamlet," plays Rick Magruder, a hotshot lawyer living in Savannah.

After a celebration honoring Rick for winning a big case, he meets an attractive waitress named Mallory (Embeth Davidtz), whose car has just been stolen. Rick takes her home and finds out she is being stalked by her father (Robert Duvall), a barefooted religious zealot living with his brethren in the Georgia woods.

Attracted to Mallory's vulnerable, haunted beauty, Rick becomes entangled in a plot involving her father that soon becomes much deeper and darker than everyday family dysfunction.

Altman, here working with the cinematographer Changwei Gu ("Farewell, My Concubine"), nicely exploits Savannah's desiccated gentility, capturing its spooky humidity far better than Clint Eastwood did in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." And he uses the device of an oncoming hurricane (named Geraldo, oddly enough) to give "The Gingerbread Man" a sense of atmosphere and impending doom.

The cast includes Robert Downey Jr. as a dissolute private eye, a titian-haired Daryl Hannah as Rick's no-nonsense legal assistant, and Tom Berenger as Mallory's distant but menacing ex-husband.

All acquit themselves with class -- and a welcome minimum of rough language -- throughout a plot that has only a few red herrings and even fewer surprises. (Anyone paying attention will figure out who's who during the first few minutes.)

But even though "The Gingerbread Man" isn't a thriller in the gut-wrenching, forehead-slapping sense of the word, it still represents a maturity and directness that's been missing on screen of late.

In fact, the biggest quibble about the movie isn't its lackluster story or soggy mystery, but Altman's unconventional approach to sound recording. In films like "Nashville" and "M*A*S*H*," his use of overlapping dialogue served him well, but it renders much of the dialogue in "The Gingerbread Man" unintelligible -- sometimes resulting in crucial lines being buried.

Alert filmgoers will be able to make out the gist of the story anyway, but nonetheless, caveat auditor.

'The Gingerbread Man'

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah

Directed by Robert Altman

Released by Polygram Films

Rated R (sexuality, violence and language)

Sun Score: **

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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