'Gingerbread' Men Know Cinematic Recipe
The Sunday Star-Ledger, January
by Bob Campbell
The man who chopped American
movies into Cubist jigsaw puzzles and the chap who patched together
a screen production of Shakespeare's uncut "Hamlet"
make a pleasantly odd couple.
When Southern superwriter John
Gisham is added to the mix with iconoclastic Amercian director
Robert Altman and neoclassical English actor-director Kenneth
Branagh, the result is the most enjoyable movie menage a trois
since Jules and Jim.
The trans-Atlantic trinity is
responsible for the stylish suspense drama, "The Gingerbread
Man," which marks a change of pace for all concerned.
For high-flying lawyer-author
Grisham, it's the first film to be based on one of his original
screenplays (written several years ago).
Branagh stars as a slick Georgia
lawyer with what the once-scandalous Altman mischieviously describes
as "my kind of flaw--zipper flaws." It's Branagh's
first American leading role since his own "Dead Again"
in 1991 and his first film work of any kind since directing and
starring last year's mammoth "Hamlet."
And for Altman, the freewheeling
impresario of "M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "The
Player" and an amazing lineup of other unconventional movie
landmarks, it's a suprise return to the kind of relatively straightforward
genre filmmaking he'd abandoned to follow his own un-Hollywoodish
This is an Altman film? It has
a clear-cut plot, a sharply defined central character and the
kind of traditional entertainment set pieces (car chases, gunfights)
that he seemed to have forsaken. But "The Gingerbread Man"
also boasts a wit and visual grace that sets it apart from standard
The conspicuous camaraderie of
director and star during a joint New York interview makes clear
what they've gained from their shared effort. But what brought
them together in the first place?
"I did it because of Bob,"
"I did it because of Ken,"
Leaving unanswered the question
of who first proposed them to each other, the two allow themselves
a bit of naughtiness toward their third partner (Grisham wasn't
part of the film's promotional pack.)
"Nobody would have bought
this script if it hadn't had his name on it," Branagh says.
It is Altman, notorious for his
feuds with writers over credits and control, who steps in to
rescue Grisham's honor. "He wrote this when he was a lot
younger, " Altman points out. "He'd do a better job
Still, it hardly displeased this
creative director that he felt perfectly free to give the script
his own imprint. The final film, he says, is "almost an
adaptation of the original. Just as if I'd picked up a paperback
in a bookstore and turned it into a script." The rewrite
is credited to Al Hayes, who is wickedly assumed to be Altman
himself. (On this, if nothing else, the director is mum.)
Many of the script changes stress
the deepening and de-idealizing of Branagh's character. "The
movie is much more gritty than Grisham's script," says Branagh.
"I'm not Harrison Ford, and I'm not playing a flawless hero.
This is a successful but slightly screwed-up guy. I hope audiences
are willing to accept a flawed character these days."
Branagh plays Savannah's Rick
Magruder, whose one-night stand with a hillbilly waitress sucks
him into a scary funhouse featuring the usual crazy-quilt Altman
cast. As the cocktail-waitressing object of his distractions,
Embeth ("Schindler's List") Davidtz essays an unusually
grave femme fatale. "I didn't let her smile once during
the whole movie," Altman says with a certain perverse satisfaction.
Robert Duvall plays the girl's
deranged father, who seems to be stalking her. Rick's efforts
to protect her are assisted by Robert Downey Jr.'s slow-talking
private eye and Daryl Hannah as Rick's coolly unavailable company
conscience, but hindered by Tom Berenger as the girl's surly
Actors famously enjoy working
with Altman--enough to forego their usual fees, a large reason
why this big-scale production with a classy cast came in at a
relatively modest $22 million, according to the director.
Altman is sneakily proud of having
lined up the film's Savannah locations before Clint Eastwood
began shooting "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"
there. "I wouldn't have followed Clint," he says. "But
we got in there first."
For his part, Branagh prides
himself on playing "for once, a Southerner who talks fast."
That claim spurs Altman to tweak him about a scene imrpovised
during shooting. "The funniest Brit thing was in the woods,"
Branagh nods. "I'm running
down to the water after a car that's sinking . . . . I think
my kids are inside, and I want to shout something to the people
behind us. So Bob starts rolling, and I start running down the
hill and I yell, 'They're in the boot. They're in the boot!'
"Bob says, 'Cut,' and then
just stands there grinning. 'Ken,' he says, 'what the hell is
a boot?'" With the word Americanized to "trunk,"
the scene was reshot.
One of Altman's major concepts
was to set the suspense story against a steadily rising hurricane,
making it perhaps his most atmospheric movie since the weather-saturated
Western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."
"The actual hurricane service
monitors created (Hurricane) Geraldo," Altman says. "They
plotted it and did all the graphics, just as if it were real.
All the weather stuff is authentic."
(Branagh, who spent the film
soaked, was less enthusiastic. During a climactic showdown on
a heaving harbor dredge, he nearly became seasick.)
Though "The Gingerbread
Man" isn't as uniquely Altmanesque as his usual personal
projects ("Kansas City," for example) it boasts fine
ensemble scene, wryly clever humor and sharply observed behavioral
Fans needn't fear, however, that
the maestro has mellowed. He went through a well-publicized face-off
with Polygram, which wanted to recut and rescore the movie. They'd
hired Altman to put a personal spin on a typical genre piece,
then had the usual second thoughts.
Altman won, though he did give
up on an early idea to score the film to hurrican noise and sound
effects instead of music. "I was wrong about that,"
he says easily. "It was asking too much."
Despite the difference in age,
both Branagh and Altman can count themselves among veterans who've
been in and out of fashion, both the hot new thing and yesterday's
Branagh's grand "Hamlet"
was greeted with an odd lack of excitement, perhaps because it
was his third Shakespeare film in as many years. That fact mildly
puzzles the English moviemaker, though not as much as winning
an Oscar nomination for best screenplay while using only Shakespeare's
text. "I took hell from my friends for that one," he
While Branagh is planning a break
from movies, the inexhaustible Altman already has mnoved on to
an amibitious new project. He and writer-cartoonist Garry Trudeau
have been green-lighted by ABC to develop a regular series, as
yet untitled, that will give the "Nashville" treatment
to Silicon Valley.
Having weathered mixed reactions
to his previous lampoons of the institutions of coutry music
("Nashville"), the family ("A Wedding"),
fashion ("Ready to Wear") and food ("Health"),
Altman knows that some critics will automatically accuse the
series of self-indulgent '60's-style nose-thumbing.
He's aware that there are those
who have pigeon-holed him as a figure from the past, an obsolescent
rebel. "When you're an old lion," he says affably,
"you always arrive with plenty of baggage."
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