Robert Altman finds adapting John Grisham’s The Gingerbread Man a far tougher chore than some of his contemporaries but Martin Carr discovers some things to like…
John Grisham stories are law firm fodder filled with intrigue, attorneys and femme fatales perpetually corrupting our prototypically upstanding citizens. In an ideal world every author dreams of having an adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack or Robert Altman because these men are world class auteurs. There is however one small problem with cinematic legends and Grisham adaptations that gets consistently overlooked. His books, although worldwide bestsellers, are tricky beasts to tame and can slip easily into mediocre B-movie pulp fiction territory. Leaving even legends looking less than legendary in the final analysis.
Pollack managed to pull off The Firm, Coppola sailed close to average with The Rainmaker, while Schumacher’s Pelican Brief remains good box office mediocrity. Neither should blame be apportioned to the A-listers who lined up to star in what everyone considered sure things. Whether it was Gene Hackman, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, or Downey Jr, Kenneth Branagh or Tommy Lee Jones. These flicks remain entertainingly formulaic law firm dramas, centred round topical hard hitting issues that just lose something in translation. Which unfortunately is where The Gingerbread Man falls down.
Branagh is good as Rick Magruder in a role he was capable of doing in his sleep I suspect. Altman on board as director is workman like in his direction, making dialogue scenes serviceable rather than dynamic. But the film itself feels like a slick production of Columbo minus Peter Falk. Downey Jr and Darryl Hannah both play solid second fiddle to our Brit doing American and instil The Gingerbread Man with a Deep Southern psychosis. Nights are hot, women sultry but it feels more studio backlot than location real.
Let's be clear this is no Time To Kill and lacks a big bad due to Robert Duvall being underused and monosyllabic throughout. Only John Hurt in Crystal Skull had less to do and much less mad to play with under similar circumstances. No one really has enough character to get their teeth into and revelations go off like damp squibs, making The Gingerbread Man nothing more than a low temperature thriller. Grisham and everyone involved has definitely done consistently better work and this is nothing but a missed opportunity. Exposition is rushed, threat minimal and payoff barely registers before credits roll.
If you want to see Altman at his best look to MASH, for Branagh revisit Henry V, Hamlet or Dead Again. While Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Wonder Boys and The Soloist stand out from his later work. The Gingerbread Man is only noteworthy as an example of what happens when everyone jumps on a novelist’s bandwagon. Not every written word will make a fortune Michael Crichton’s Disclosure taught us that.