One of the marks of a true auteur is someone that can take a director-for-hire job and make it their own. They are able to take a project that originated from a major studio and infuse it with their own personal style. Sometimes this works (The Untouchables) and sometimes it doesn’t (The Cotton Club). The 1990s was the decade of John Grisham film adaptations. He was a criminal lawyer that began writing very popular crime fiction several of which were made into successful films by esteemed filmmakers like Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Alan J. Pakula (The Pelican Brief) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker). These directors were very prominent during the 1970s and began to fall out of favor with the studios during the 1980s. They took these paycheck gigs as a way to stay relevant in mainstream popular culture while also hoping to parlay their potential success into financing more personal projects.
Along came Robert Altman towards the end of the ‘90s who decided to try his hand with The Gingerbread Man (1998), based on an original story that Grisham himself adapted into a screenplay. Never one to follow a script too closely, Altman heavily reworked it and created his own unique spin on the material. When an audience test screening went badly, the studio went in and re-edited the film against Altman’s wishes and their version tested even worse. They finally agreed to release his version and promptly buried it thus ensuring that it would not do well at the box office. While certainly not Altman’s finest work, it is a curious cinematic oddity full of fascinating quirks that help it stand apart from other Grisham cinematic adaptations.
Right from the opening credits, Altman establishes a rather unsettling tone that puts one immediately on edge as they play over incredibly ominous music with the camera flying over harsh, foreboding-looking landscapes. Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is a successful defense attorney from Savannah, Georgia who has just won a high profile case that also made the local police look quite bad. Early on, Altman playfully suggests how he feels about slick lawyers like Rick when the man’s young daughter asks him if he’s a snake oil salesman because she saw someone on television call him that.
We get the first full-on Altman technique at a surprise party held at the firm Rick works for and we see him in schmooze mode as he mingles with various party guests, including his dutiful assistant Lois Harlan (Daryl Hannah) and witness a snarky conversation with his alcoholic ex-wife Leeanne (Famke Janssen) as they trade not so veiled insults at one another. In this scene, Altman favors his trademark long shots and overlapping dialogue in crowd scenes so that the main characters mingle with others and we are allowed to take in the entire scene and focus on whomever we want. As the party ends, Rick playfully flirts with Lois while one of the catering staff lingers in the background of several shots.
As Rick leaves for home, he notices her (Embeth Davidtz) chasing after someone stealing her car. It’s a dark and stormy night with Hurricane Geraldo threatening and so Rick volunteers to drive her home. They get there and find her car in the driveway and the front door open. Altman uses the shadowy home at night to maximum effect as we wonder if an intruder is lurking somewhere within the dimly lit place. Rick and Mallory end up having a one-night stand. Even though he initially doesn’t know her name, Rick becomes interested in a problem she’s having with her estranged father Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall), a certified whacko who is apparently the leader of a group of old homeless men that fancy themselves part of some quasi-religious cult. Rick uses his influence to get Dixon committed but he soon escapes and the lawyer finds himself a target along with his ex-wife and their two children.
As with all of Altman’s films, The Gingerbread Man is an embarrassment of acting riches and it’s great to see him giving 1980s mainstay actors like Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah and Tom Berenger meaty roles in the film. At the time, they had fallen out of favor and were no longer getting substantial roles in high profile Hollywood films. Altman knew that these actors were hungry for roles like this and they clearly rose to the occasion, relishing working with someone of Altman’s pedigree. For example, Downey plays a slightly sleazy private investigator by the name of Clyde Pell that Rick retains. His first appearance on-screen is a memorable one as he shamelessly hits on not one but two secretaries and finds the time to do little bits of business that tell us all we need to know about his character in a few seconds before he goes in to meet with Rick. Downey is the kind of actor that absolutely thrived on Altman’s improvisational style of filmmaking. As always, he is infinitely watchable in the little ways he reacts to something that is said, like how he nods off during one of Rick’s court appearances, or how he interacts with others.
Kenneth Branagh is quite good as a vain, over-confident lawyer who gets in way over his head. Rick is riddled with flaws and Altman delights in making him an imperfect protagonist. Thankfully, the actor is more than up for the challenge as he does a fine job of showing how Rick’s obsession with Mallory’s plight comes at the expense of his personal and professional life. One gets the impression that Rick’s life was a bit of mess before all of this happened. To his credit, Branagh also affects a credible southern accent and manages to avoid exaggerating it to cartoonish proportions, as is sometimes the temptation for actors to do.
Initially, Mallory is an unlikely femme fatale. She appears to be a typical damsel in distress but Embeth Davidtz’s performance suggests a hint of Dixon’s madness residing behind her character’s eyes. We’re not sure of her real intentions, as she remains something of an elusive figure early on. Why is Rick risking so much for someone he knows so little about? There’s something about Mallory that doesn’t ring true and we pick up on it fairly early but Rick’s raging ego blinds him from this until he’s in way over his head with his professional reputation on the line.
Altman dutifully works his way through the mechanics of the plot but one gets the feeling that he really could care less about them, judging by the way he allows obvious jumps in logic and gaping plot holes go by. It is the moments between characters, their behavior and mannerisms that he’s more interested in. For example, there is the perfunctory court room scene that is the staple of all Grisham adaptations and Altman zips through it but not without giving Robert Duvall the opportunity to show how crazy his character is and by injecting some humor with several of Dixon’s minions causing a ruckus at one point only to be ejected. Altman is less interested in making a typical Grisham thriller than subverting its conventions by infusing elements of film noir and even the horror genre, like in a scene where Dixon’s gang make their way through a cemetery at night during a thunderstorm to spring their leader from a sanitarium that is rather creepy when juxtaposed with a particularly upsetting nightmare that Mallory is experiencing at the same time. Altman sees Dixon as some kind of elemental force of nature as evident in the way he films his escape during this scene.
The veteran filmmaker manages to make the moments where Rick’s life is in danger seem less like the generic conventions they are and more like moments of genuine dread by infusing them with believable behavior (except for one moment where he busts his kids out of school and pops a staff member) and not what a character in a film would do. I also like how Altman ratchets up the tension in Rick’s life at the same time as Hurricane Geraldo intensifies itself. He does this by increasing the frequency of long shots as Rick frantically tries to keep his kids safe unaware that he is being followed by someone in a car from afar.
Like Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), Altman’s The Gingerbread Man features a mystery at the heart of its story set in Savannah, Georgia but they couldn’t be further apart in their depictions of the town. In Eastwood’s film, it is portrayed as a pretty, tight-knit community populated by lovable eccentrics with all kinds of gorgeous shots of its landmarks that make you wonder if it was partially funded by their tourist commission. Altman’s film, on the other hand, as shot by Chinese cinematographer Gu Changwei (Farewell My Concubine), Savannah is presented as a dark, foreboding place besieged by a nasty hurricane and populated by belligerent cops, scary homeless folks and others that are hell-bent on making Rick’s life difficult. This is the dark underbelly of Eastwood’s picture postcard depiction.
John Grisham had written the screenplay for The Gingerbread Man early on in his career and it had been kicking around Hollywood for a while. The general consensus was that it needed work. Polygram Films had acquired the screenplay and had attracted actor Kenneth Branagh to the project with a lot of money. He liked the Grisham story but had reservations about the character of Rick Magruder whom he felt was a stereotypical hero. He agreed to do the film for but only on the condition that someone like Robert Altman direct. As luck would have it, he wanted to work with the actor. The director had never read a Grisham novel before but saw potential in the story. He liked the structure but his condition for taking on this project came from a desire to change as much of the traditional thriller elements as possible and stay out of the courtroom if he could. He also wanted to make Rick, “a highly successful man with no real sense of morality.” Altman called Branagh and told him, “I would love to do this with you if we can fool the audience by not making you the hero, by making you flawed. If you go through that and not play Harrison Ford, I think we can do something very interesting.” According to the actor, it was Altman’s idea to set the film in Savannah during a hurricane.
While promoting Kansas City (1996) in Europe, the director met a writer by the name of Clive Hayes and hired him to rewrite the script (under the pen name of his brother Al). In preparation for the role, he hired a dialect coach to help him develop a believable southern accent indicative of the Savannah region and not a “generalized Southern ‘Hee-Haw’ redneck.” For the Southern Gothic kind of vibe he wanted, Altman thought of The Night of the Hunter (1955) and sought out cinematographer Gu Changwei because he greatly admired his work on Farewell My Concubine (1993).
It was smooth sailing until post-production when Polygram showed the film without all of the effects and musical score completed to three different test audiences in West Hollywood – none of which were ready for Altman’s atypical thriller. The studio claimed that his film “lacked tension and suffered from an inappropriate music score,” while Altman claimed that they wanted a shorter running time. Not surprisingly, it received a middling reaction. Not happy with this, they had Altman make a few minor tweaks and had another test screening with the same indifferent reaction. The studio proceeded to take the film away from the director and had another editor re-cut it, removing ten minutes of footage. Understandably upset, Altman was in the process of having his name removed from the film when the studio cut was screened for another test audience that liked it even less. After all the dust had settled, Polygram let Altman finish the film his way and released it.
The Gingerbread Man enjoyed mostly positive notices from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The Altman touches are more in dialogue and personal style than in construction. He gives the actors freedom to move around in their roles. Instead of the tunnel vision of most Grisham movies, in which every line of dialogue relentlessly hammers down the next plot development, The Gingerbread Man has space for quirky behavior, kidding around and murky atmosphere.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The Gingerbread Man, which is carried most effectively by Mr. Branagh's performance, is also given an unusual look by Gu Changwei's camera work. This cinematographer, whose credits include Farewell, My Concubine, turns the film strange, insinuating and occasionally stark, which eloquently reflects Mr. Altman's offbeat approach to the story.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “What it's selling most of all is its director's assurance at manipulation of narrative film conventions. So powerful are these and so confident is he that he beguiles you into leaning back and letting him work.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “If it weren't for Altman's touches, The Gingerbread Man would be a mediocre thriller. Even with them, it can't be more than a top-notch genre film, but top-notch is top-notch.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman felt it was “tricky and satisfying entertainment.”
However, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman felt the film was “a stormy farrago of uneven ensemble acting, overlapping dialogue, and nervous camera maneuvers. Whatsits whiz through the foreground, scenes are shot through a foggy windshield. Narrative suspense is less important than character.” USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and called it a “big yawn, a neo-noir thriller that unwinds with off-kilter promise but eventually crumbles into conventional bits.” After all was said and done, Altman’s battle with the studio took its toll on him and he got sick shortly afterwards and was hospitalized. He also became depressed but his loyal inner circle rallied to his aid and got him interested in Cookie’s Fortune (1999), which helped revitalize love of filmmaking.
Years later, Altman was still bitter about the experience: "Well, it's criminal, their treatment of that film. There was a vindictive order from the guy who was running (Polygram Films), he was so pissed off with me, he literally told them, 'I want that movie killed.' We're talking to lawyers, but it's almost impossible to win a lawsuit. You can't prove what a film could have done. They were just pissed off because it didn't test the way they wanted it to with the teenagers, y'know, in those malls." According to Altman, Polygram tried to bury the film via lack of advertising and a limited theatrical release because “they were embarrassed by all the stories going around about how they had to give it back to me.”
Sandwiched between more personal projects, The Gingerbread Man has become something of a forgotten film in Altman’s sizable body of work, which is a shame because there is a lot to admire. The film is worth a look if only to see how a distinctive filmmaker applies his fast and loose approach to the Grisham formula. The result is a film too idiosyncratic for mainstream audiences and too conventional for the director’s core fanbase. It’s too bad, really, because there is a lot to enjoy and one gets the impression that Altman takes perverse pleasure in systematically dismantling a successful lawyer’s life all for a woman he barely knows. In turn, we get perverse pleasure in seeing the veteran director deconstruct the Grisham formula to produce a flawed but fascinating film.