The Gingerbread Man

Memphis Flyer

DIRECTED BY: Robert Altman

REVIEWED: 07-13-98

To say that Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man is a sensuous thriller would be absolutely accurate and rather uselessly trivializing. Sensuous thrillers have, after all, in recent years become a dime-a-dozen phenomena. American filmmaking today represents a near-classic example of a decadent period in art, and the rush to re-mine the rich genres and styles of our cinematic past is one of its chief characteristics. Though there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, it can prove a fatal formula for filmic imagination when coupled with the current lemming-like attention span of Hollywood commerce.

The revival of interest in film noir – which began to manifest on screen during the 1980s and thus far shows no signs of abating – can be attributed, as much as anything, to this jejune copycatting. The really fine ones have been few and far between (The Grifters, arguably, first among them), but there have been just enough to fuel the retro-noir trend as one of the few low-budget, safe-bet alternatives to blockbusterdom. Most of our leading directors, even those with sensibilities fundamentally at odds with the genre, have, at least once during the past 15 years, tried their hand at it.

What an unexpected and satisfying pleasure then, at this late stage of an old game, to have an American master remind us that we have more interesting reasons than the current failure of imagination for enjoying these dark studies of people of low degree – reasons that have to do less with our cinema’s self-cannibalization and more to do with who we are and how we live today. Adapting his screenplay (pseudonymously credited to Al Hayes) from an original screen story by John Grisham, Altman has fashioned a dark jewel of a film in which the use of noir elements is not the usual matter of a few stylistic (quite often, extraneous or misapplied) flourishes. Like the great, vertiginous, post-WWII noir, The Gingerbread Man is a window on a seductive, unsettling, psychological state – the classic noir state of the center not holding, of the threat of disunity from within – a window which, though of no useful perspective to the threatened protagonist, provides the viewer the comfortable distance of framing. We are able to lose ourselves completely in the world of the film because Altman creates a complete world, one in which style and substance are indistinguishable; and yet, even as we identify with the noir characters’ bad behavior, their brazen weaknesses, corruption, and the mess they make of things, we shadow their missteps without falling into the void with them. The Gingerbread Man is a authoritatively conducted walk on the dark side; it is moviemaking that leaves you with slime on your heels, some fine points of moral ambivalence to chew, and a grin on your face at Altman’s still-developing capacities to entertain.

In this character-driven hejira through paranoia and human failing, Kenneth Branagh plays Rick Magruder, a self-indulgent but successful Savannah attorney, who has made a name – unpopular with the local law enforcement – in defending cop killers and other dicey, high-profile cases. He seems something of a sexual addict. He loves his children but usually picks them up late at his ex-wife’s home and never seems to have enough attention for them. He drinks a little too much. He’s arrogant. He’s charming. It’s as hard to take a barometric reading of his moral center as it is for the meteorologists to gauge whether Geraldo, the off-shore hurricane that threatens Savannah throughout the film, will indeed make landfall. In the end, both tensions break and ciety at large, confuses data and real information; he is often on his cell phone but rarely in the conversation that most matters. In the postmodern colors, tone, and temperament of our era, Robert Altman recreates in The Gingerbread Man the noir narrative as a quest for authenticity, and posits a hero whose fragmented values and attention span seem maddeningly familiar.

--Hadley Hury

Full Length Reviews
The Gingerbread Man

Capsule Reviews
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Other Films by Robert Altman
Cookie's Fortune
Kansas City
Ready to Wear

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Double Jeopardy
Ratchet
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