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The Gingerbread Man

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz,
Darryl Hannah, Robert Downey Jr, Tom Berenger and Robert Duvall
Written by Al Hayes
based on an original story by John Grisham
Directed by Robert Altman

IN SHORT: Good Grisham story. Better Altman film.

Here's a good reason not to be a top notch criminal defense attorney whose strategy of shredding a testifying cop on the stand helps free his scummy client: The cops will hate your guts so bad that, when you need help, you might as well call the Fire department.

Such is the sitch in Robert Altman's "The Gingerbread Man". In it white trash and white collars come together and Altman turns the detective-thriller genre on its backside. Normally the detective part comes first. Here, based on a short story by John Grisham, the thriller part rivets your attention and the detective part keeps your grey matter pumping. Only at the very end does it come apart, and not that badly.

"The Gingerbread Man" is good Altman. Somewhere between "Short Cuts" and "The Player," to use his 90s work in comparison. True, Cranky doesn't usually make comparisons, but Altman is a creator beyond those standards. You can look at an Altman film and just "know" that's what it is. As "The Gingerbread Man" unfolds, there's a strong feeling that the scenes are improvised -- an Altman trademark. It's either that or the screenplay is so damned good at recreating "real" conversations and situations that it feels too real to be so. Before you know it, you have a feeling for all the characters and when the storm hits (literally, 'cuz one of the supporting characters is a hurricane), you can sit back and enjoy the ride.

"The Gingerbread Man" features a southern accent (U.S.) spouting Kenneth Branagh as super lawyer Rick Magruder and Embeth Davidtz as Mallory Doss, the white trash that spins him round and round and round. After a mystery man steals her car, she winds up bedding this good Samaritan who drives her home. Turns out the thief is her daddy (Robert Duvall), part of a non-religious cult that all look like stereotype Mountain Men. Magruder gets daddy committed. The Mountain Men rip off his kids and head for the woods and pretty soon sharp lawyer has to go to the cops for help.

Let us remember that old saying "what goes around comes around." You can now go out and buy tickets, as Cranky isn't going to give any more away.

Other players in our fine story include Tom Berenger as Mallory's hateful ex-husband, Daryl Hannah as Magruder's plain Jane associate and Robert Downey Jr. as a sleazy private detective. All have substantial parts in the ensemble as it shifts from thriller to detective yarn and back again. Problem is, when the film makes that final shift it falls down and goes boom. Still, it's terrifically refreshing to sit through an original Grisham story which doesn't spend most of its day and night in a courtroom.

The standout performance here is not Branagh's accent, which is very good. It is Embeth Davidtz'. Her character story goes from trash to (perceived) abused child and wife to possible villain. Good or bad, you won't know *what* Mallory really is until you get to the end of the flick. It is a great performance.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to "The Gingerbread Man," he would have paid . . .


Good Altman is superior to almost anything else you can see now.

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