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Playing It Safe

The John Grisham industry has claimed another heavyweight. A few months back, Francis Ford Coppola delivered up John Grisham's The Rainmaker, and now Robert Altman sails into view with The Gingerbread Man, based on an original Grisham screen story--although it's basically a recycling of other Grisham recyclings.

Who would have guessed back in the '70s that Coppola and Altman, probably the greatest creative forces in American film from that era, would two decades later be toiling in the pulp mills? In modern Hollywood, perhaps more so than at any other time in its history, a director needs a hit to keep on working--not in order to make the films he really cares about, but just to keep working. And who better to land you in the hit parade than Grisham? (I suppose there's also Michael Crichton, but Coppola and Altman don't do dinosaurs--at least not yet.) The Gingerbread Man is probably the most straight-ahead movie Altman has ever made. It's skillful and spooky, heavy on the moss-hung atmosphere--but there's nothing much underneath it all except the same old Grisham-isms.

At least Altman doesn't try to turn Grisham into Dostoyevsky. He understands the formulaic nature of the material, and assisted by the gifted Chinese cinematographer Changwei Gu, he does his best to truss it up with the filigree of dark shadows, pounding rains and mirrored surfaces. He tries to make the film as interesting around the edges as he can, because he knows the center will not hold. Altman has always been a magician of the movies, but here his magic is used not so much to transport us as to distract us. What he's doing is a species of hackwork, but it's hackwork of a rather high order. He almost makes you forget the ordinariness of what you're watching.

Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is the film's Grisham prototype--a cocky Savannah, Georgia, lawyer who appears to have it made until his world is undone. He's just won a big case for his firm in which he successfully defended a criminal who shot a cop. Recently divorced, he hooks up with Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a sloe-eyed waitress, at his firm's swank victory party and ends up ensnared in her voluminous family troubles. Her claim that her loony fundamentalist father, Dixon (Robert Duvall), is stalking her brings out the Prince Valiant in Rick. Smitten, he maneuvers to have Dixon rounded up and put away.

Branagh isn't glamorous, and that works to his advantage in The Gingerbread Man. He's no Tom Cruise (The Firm) or Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill)--he refreshes the prototype. Rick may be cocky, but he's as self-deluded as he is self-righteous. His passion for the shadowy Mallory has a fated pull familiar from film noir. He's an ordinary man carried aloft by passion, and when he's endangered, he seems truly vulnerable.

Branagh's ordinary-guy quality soaks up some of the squishier Grisham-isms--like the way Rick is shown to be a peachy-keen dad to his two young children during his court-appointed visitations. Grisham doesn't want to alienate us by suggesting that Rick, despite his penchant for philandering or his success at clearing cop-shooters, is anything less than saintly. Defenders of Grisham's books often tout them as being morally ambiguous, but there's nothing ambiguous about what he's up to: Whatever bad stuff his lawyer-heroes are into inevitably dissipates in redemption.

Branagh may not be the archetypal Grisham actor, but he fits snugly into Altman's career-long gallery of valorous, befuddled romantics, best exemplified by Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. In that film, Altman pulled something new out of an old hat. He doesn't try to do that in The Gingerbread Man. It may be his way of saying there's nothing to pull out.

The Gingerbread Man delivers the Grisham goods in a serviceable and compelling way, but the only reason to see it is for a few of the performances--especially Robert Downey Jr.'s boozy private investigator and Duvall's hyper-creepy patriarch--and for the Altman "touches." Reportedly it was Altman's idea to work in the giant hurricane--Hurricane Geraldo--that functions as a major player in the piece. It's hokey, but like the hurricane in John Huston's Key Largo, it's a surefire flashy metaphor. Almost every scene has a TV set in the background broadcasting weather reports, and when we hear a newscaster say, "It's far too dangerous to be out on the streets," the warning carries a double edge.

In most crime thrillers, the director stages a moment of garish violence early on in order to keep the audience edgy. Altman doesn't work that way. The floating ominousness in The Gingerbread Man is all in the atmosphere. We don't need a big, bloody shock to set us up; the film is scary in less explicitly violent ways. When the police descend on a dilapidated Georgia mansion in order to root out Dixon and his cult, the frantic, almost noiseless scurrying of the ragtag tramps has a nightmarish charge. So does the scene in which Dixon's crew descends on the mental hospital where he is incarcerated--it's as scary as anything in Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. And later on there's a powerfully unsettling shot of Dixon in a state of ghastly repose as a fire rages behind him.

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