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[whitespace] The Gingerbread Man
Mariana Trench Coat: Kenneth Branagh stalks Savannah for a killer in 'The Gingerbread Man.'

Joyce Rudolph

Kenneth Branagh meets danger in this week's John Grisham adaptation

By Richard von Busack

LAWYER RICK MAGRUDER (Kenneth Branagh) in The Gingerbread Man breaks that most important of all laws: never sleep with anyone whose problems are worse than your own. At a celebration party for his latest victory, Magruder picks up one of the serving women working for the catering service. Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz, the maid in Schindler's List) obviously has her troubles, nervous, knife-thin woman that she is. But it's only when Magruder discovers Mallory's cat hanging by its neck that he's sure she's being stalked by a psycho.

The probable culprit is her crazed father, Dixon (Robert Duvall), who belongs to a unspecified, possibly Christian cult. Stepping in like the gentleman he is, Magruder helps the lady put her father in the mental hospital for observation. Dixon busts out of the Laughing Academy and starts sending Magruder photos of people with their faces burnt out. This causes friction for Mallory and Magruder, Magruder and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen), and Magruder and his secretary (Daryl Hannah, almost unrecognizable behind glasses and a dye job), with whom he has a little thing.

Having more melodrama than the other Grisham adaptations makes The Gingerbread Man seem like the most interesting of the lot. In the early scenes, there's a promise of excitement. Over the titles, a collage of radio voices tips us off to Magruder's celebrity, while we glide over the swamps around Savannah from about 1,000 feet in the air. The scene of the theft of Mallory's auto is staged in a rainy brick-lined alley that looks like Whitechapel in a Jack the Ripper movie, and has the eeriness sought in the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Robert Altman reminds us what kind of director he is in a few scenes showing us how Magruder's date with his ex-kids turns into a hungover fiasco. The title sequence is also nicely staged. Dixon's commune of old, filthy, bearded men swarms out of a cemetery where they've been hiding and up the walls of the hospital to bust Dixon out, and the action is cross-cut with scenes of Mallory telling Magruder the fairy tale of the Gingerbread Man with which her father used to threaten her. Unfortunately, moments like this are just satisfying incidents in a minor thriller.

Branagh's Southern accent is extremely good, but he looks distracted throughout, as if he wanted to play Magruder as a bit more of a pig but wasn't allowed to. Usually, Grisham's heroes remind me of the answer you're supposed to give when asked in a job interview about your faults: "I suppose I work too hard; I'm too much of a perfectionist." Branagh's edge of selfishness, of perhaps drinking too much, makes him look like a real 3-D character by comparison. Ultimately, however, Branagh can't transcend the coincidences and unlikeliness of this potboiler, and he seems to give up trying. His eyes go dead, and his voice goes flat. Altman compensates with some handsome cityscapes and a two-fisted finale, but on the whole, he directs wearily, impersonally. It won't take more than a day to forget The Gingerbread Man completely. Who thought they'd ever say that about a Robert Altman movie?

The Gingerbread Man (R; 115 min.), directed by Robert Altman, written by Al Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham, photographed by Changwei Gu and starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert Duvall and Daryl Hannah.

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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