The Gingerbread Man (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This movie is the offspring of a marriage made in hell. Writing the original screenplay was John Grisham, champion of the conventional. His specialty is plot-heavy bestsellers about the gap between the law and true justice, featuring corrupt lawyers and larger-than-life villainy. Directing was Robert Altman, challenger of the conventional, subverter of filmdom's genre formats, a man who generally ignores plot altogether, unless he accidentally trips over it.

Altman starts right out by showing this ain't gonna be your father's film noir thriller, when he opens the film with a lengthy, virtually irrelevant helicopter shot of an unpopulated Georgia landscape. The camera searches for a car. Ah, there it is! In that car is a semi-sleazy lawyer (Kenneth Branagh) who is returning home after winning another tricky case. He's blathering away on his cell phone, making his way to a celebration, during which he demonstrates a weakness for good times and the ladies. As the fete ends, the lawyer walks out and sees a woman trying to catch her own car, which has apparently been stolen. The woman (Embeth Davidtz) is the party's caterer, and Branagh offers her a lift home, eventually to become enmeshed in her life, which is like a gothic Southern fable. It features a feral, apparently crazed father who lurks in the woods half naked with other equally crazed coots. They're sort of like the House Republican Caucus.

Ultimately, the film becomes sort of a China Moon, Body Heat kind of picture, involving a femme fatale who studies a useful man's weaknesses, and exploits them at every opportunity. That sort of thing is really not Altman's cup of tea, and his inexperience with conventional "thriller" plotting caused him to fumble the ball a few times with mistakes that gave away too much of details which should have been kept secret. For example, the plot includes an ex-husband who seems at first to be irrelevant to the plot, apparently planted solely to provide a minor bit of exposition. He later turns out to follow the "economy of characters" rule by playing a key role in the plot's denouement. That's a typical bit of thriller sleight-of-hand, and an experienced genre director might have made us fall for it by casting an unknown in the role, thus successfully and correctly hiding the importance of the character. Altman unfortunately cast Tom Berenger in the role, thereby informing us that the character was not just passing through, as we were supposed to believe, but must somehow come back and be involved in a major way. Everyone watching in 1998 had to know that Berenger wasn't in the film to play a cameo, and that the ex-husband must therefore have hidden significance which would emerge later.

Hitchcock knew how to handle casting in a counter-intuitive way that made plot developments more surprising. If he were around today, he might cast the biggest star in Hollywood, a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney, then kill him off in the first two minutes - for good. Therefore, we'd be wondering when the big star would return, and assuming that his character isn't really dead. But he would be. That's the kind of trick Hitch played with Janet Leigh in Psycho. Altman, however, isn't Hitchcock, and the Berenger casting isn't a trick. Altman simply bungled and gave away the surprise.

(As I just did to those of you too dense to see it yourselves.) 


Embeth Davitz did a poorly-lit full frontal, and later did another scene in which she showed most of her butt in good light "the morning after"

In the morning after scene, Kenneth Branagh was naked except for holding his clothes in his crotch.

There is a major plot loophole as well. The main set-up is impossible. How the hell could the caterer have timed the drive-away scene after the party, so that the car would be pulling off just as Branagh got into a position to witness the action? Yet that timing was essential to her seduction of Branagh. He (and we) must believe that she is an innocent bystander and not a puppet-master, and do we believe that based entirely on the timing of that scene, because such a thing could not be timed, and must therefore have been sheer coincidence. He therefore doe not suspect that he is being set up, and neither do we. We are drawn into the plot, all the while assuming that their meeting was a coincidence. When we later find out that she is not an innocent bystander, we have forgotten why we originally trusted her. But if we think it through or watch the film a second time, we are forced into a WTF moment. We must accept that she somehow managed to do the impossible. I grant that this particular detail served to hide the fact that she was pulling the strings, which we are not supposed to know, but it's just not a valid plot device to mask a character's motivations by having her do something that can't be done. It would be customary to assume that the screenwriter messed up with a plotting error like that, but I'm not sure that's true in this case. Perhaps it was not Grisham's doing, because he was not happy with this film at all. He insisted on having his name removed from the screenplay credit.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterbox, 1.85:1, as well as a pan&scan fullscreen version

  • Full-length director commentary on the widescreen version

  • I was not pleased with the visual quality of the print. It is extraordinarily dark and not always well resolved.

Despite those problems, I thought this film was a pleasant watch. Are you shocked by that? You must be thinking, "If it's a plot-based film and the plot is bungled, it can't be good." There's some validity to that line of thought, but the key rebuttal argument is that Altman only bungled the Grisham portion of the film. The Altman portion is actually pretty cool. To his credit, Altman supplies some freshness to the usual genre contrivances. He lets all the main actors create personality quirks for their characters, thus adding enough characterization to make the characters seem less one-dimensional, and he uses musical cues and offbeat POV shots to infuse McGuffin-like significance to numerous moments that actually have no significance at all, all the while seeming to have a little smirk at his red herrings. All in all, the plot is allowed to move forward as a thriller should, without too much puffery or artiness, and without the mumbled dialogue that Altman often prefers. And the cast is great. Kenneth Branagh iis quite effective and understated as the horny Savannah lawyer, and does a good job with the accent as well. There are also some solid background performances from Embeth Davitz, Robert Duvall, and Robert Downey, Jr.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4,  Maltin 2/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.9 
  • With their dollars ... it bombed. Armed with a $25 million budget and fairly solid reviews, it barely made a ripple in the box office ($1.5 million in the USA)
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C-. Not a masterpiece of the genre, but an OK watch with a solid cast.

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