Thursday, July 23, 2020

Run, Run, Run As Fast As You Can Away From The Gingerbread Man

It was no surprise to learn that Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man was plagued by production problems. The movie has all the hallmarks of something that's been tormented by competing creative visions. You don't just get the kind of clumsy editing or erratic tone in Gingerbread Man in just any movie. It could only come out of producers & directors having wildly different visions for how a motion picture should be. Of course, you don't have to know about its behind-the-scenes struggles to know Gingerbread Man is messy. Its journey to the big screen could have been smooth as butter and Gingerbread Man would still be a poor movie.

Lawyer Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is no stranger to shady business. He's defended all kinds of low-life criminals and assorted unsavory characters. However, his newest case gives him a chance to actually help someone that's vulnerable. Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz) is a woman who lives in a constant state of fear from her father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall). She wants him put away due to his recurring violent outbursts. Magruder, defending Mallory, puts together a case that gets the elder Doss sent away to the looney bin. Of course, the story can't just end there. Dixon Doss eventually gets out and it looks like he's now set on revenge against Rick Magruder. Said revenge is bound to involve his two kids, who are now in harm's way.

Al Hayes' screenplay for The Gingerbread Man is based on a manuscript by John Grisham, because you didn't think a 90s legal drama could be made without involving Grisham, did you? Anywho, Hayes devises some conceptually interesting deviations from conventional courtroom dramas. These include making the part of the story that actually takes place in a courtroom quite brief. Much of the movie is more akin to The Fugitive than The Rainmaker. Unfortunately, innovation in The Gingerbread Man begins and ends with that singular idea. The actual execution of the whole story is far less creative, particularly in regards to the dialogue.

The Gingerbread Man has its characters speak in either elaborate Southern colloquialisms or thuddingly-obvious lines that spell out their entire motivation. There isn't much in the way of ambiguity when it comes to the dialogue in The Gingerbread Man. Al Hayes' writing constantly beats you over the head, which makes guessing the inevitable big twist in the third act all too easy to puzzle together. Then there's the odd tonal switches in the screenplay. Strange lapses into wacky comedy, such as hooting and hollering rednecks at a trial or anything involving Robert Downey Jr.'s lackadaisical later, feel like they wandered in from a whole other movie. Perhaps that other film was at least more interesting than The Gingerbread Man.

Between it all, a fairly rote story plays out. The Gingerbread Man could have salvaged its ham-fisted writing if it at least delivered the goods on being over-the-top trash. Alas, a predictable romance between Magruder and Mallory Doss, as well as the aforementioned "big twist", are emblematic of the hackneyed storytelling that plagues Gingerbread Man. It's all too formulaic, which is always the worst thing a bad movie can be. Strange ambitious efforts gone awry aren't immune from criticism but you have to at least admire the gusto. Another John Grisham courtroom thriller going through the motions is about as remarkable as a frog in a swamp.

Is there really anything else to say here? Well, I guess I could close this review by saying how sad it is to see that the 1990s just weren't kind to some of the great filmmakers of the 1970s. While Spielberg and Scorsese were still going strong in this era, the likes of Coppola and Altman were helming turgid fare like The Gingerbread Man just two decades after directing some of the most revolutionary films ever to grace American screens. Hard to believe the guy responsible for Nashville was in charge of this woe begotten legal thriller. But that's show business folks. One minute you're up. Next minute you're down. And then the very next minute you're directing The Gingerbread Man.

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