30 films in 30 days: #5 The Gingerbread Man (1998)

Schemin’ in the rain

Robert Altman does John Grisham. If that sounds like a combination made in Hell, you’re right. This was the late 90s, when Grisham ruled the best-seller lists and studios wanted a big cut of the action. Altman and big studios have never gotten along (see, Player, The).

I recall being confused about the link back the first time I saw The Gingerbread Man. What was Altman doing here? Gambling debts? Blackmail? No matter—the results are pretty much as you might expect: a legal thriller with a side helping of quirk. But make no mistake: It’s not even close to the other way around.

Yes, there are some moments. Kenneth Branagh, if you can believe it, makes for a convincing southern lawyer, even if his accent warbles now and then. His brashness works well, much as it did in the underrated Dead Again, a film that no one seems to remember anymore. Embeth Davitz (now playing Lane Pryce’s wife (!) on Mad Men) tramps it up with white-trash abandon and then there is the eternally watchable Robert Downey Jr., who was then on the downward slope. Downey, who plays a private investigator, seems half-asleep the entire film, but he’s still the most interesting thing in it.

The biggest problem in the film is Robert Duvall, who plays Davitz’ lunatic father channeling both The Apostle and Cape Fear. He’s so purposefully maniacal that he should have PLOT DEVICE tattooed on his knuckles. He’s a crazy woodsman, or a survivalist, or a cult leader, or something. It’s never clear what. It’s one of those stories that has the hero chasing around in circles for 90 minutes so he can’t stop to think about how easy the puzzle is to solve.

The most Altmanesque part of the film is an early party scene, which features his trademark moving camera and overlapping dialogue. After that, it turns into a traditional genre piece fairly quickly.

This is also back when the country was in the midst of a small love affair with Savannah, thanks to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This film takes place there too, with a hurricane thrown in just amp up the pulp. There’s lots of driving rain against windows, slinky jazz, and Davitz in wet hair and black stockings.

The final act reminded me of a question I’ve longed wondered about: Do flare guns really set people on fire? The climax was reminiscent of another Southern fried potboiler, The Big Easy, which beats this film hands down.

BTW, Netflix  has turned into a poor man’s version of a discount cable movie channel or something. That I pulled this film out of my streaming queue is a sure sign of hard times.


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