After three decades of releasing such masterpieces as M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player, director Robert Altman realized there was one genre he’d never pursued and with The Gingerbread Man he finally jumped at the chance to helm his first official thriller (IMDb). Based on an abandoned work from one of the 1990’s most popular authors, legal mystery novelist John Grisham, this southern tale of lust and mayhem tries hard to channel the sultry and hazy toxic combination of adultery and scams utilized in Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant Body Heat to lukewarm effect in this atmospheric character drama that benefits from a stellar cast. Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh adopts a Savannah, Georgia gentlemanly drawl as successful, smooth and morally questionable shark of a lawyer Rick Magruder who spends the time he isn’t winning in the courtroom or mugging for the press, being a slightly disinterested father of two small children during the divorce proceedings from wife Leanne (Famke Janssen).
Prone to a fast lifestyle of drinks, laughs and flirting with anything in a skirt including loyal girl Friday Lois Harlan (Daryl Hannah), Rick finds himself caught in a web of passion and intrigue after he plays knight in shining armor on a rainy night, offering the waitress of a catering company that had been hired for a party in his honor a ride home in his sports car after her vehicle was stolen. When Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz) climbs into his car with a cigarette and fishnet stockings, film fans who have seen more than one vintage film noir know precisely that this femme fatale will lead him down a wrong path and after the two fall into an impulsive one-night stand, Rick overlooks one of literally several warning signs that all magnify the fact that Doss is trouble with a capital T. It seems her deranged, schizophrenic, barefoot woodsman father Dixon (a menacing Robert Duvall) is stalking his daughter and Rick, wanting to once again assert his masculine control, intervenes by getting him picked up from his cult of wandering misfits and brought in for mental observation, before he’s (of course) bailed out of the joint by his crew and decides to get even on Magruder, Mallory and Magruder’s children as well.
While there are some gaping plot holes large enough to drive a truck through that make the final and admittedly predictable act go far beyond our ability to suspend disbelief, the moody visuals and terrific ensemble featuring the regular charms of Branagh and Hannah as well as a endearing and fresh mischievous turn from character actor Robert Downey Jr. as the private investigating sidekick of Branagh’s keep one amused. However, it doesn’t stand up to other films in the genre including the neo noir Body Heat nor will it stand the test of time as a memorable entry in Altman’s impressive career—there’s plenty of thrills to be had in some of Altman’s other pictures to leave the genre trappings of Gingerbread Man aside. Note: according to IMDb, dismayed at the amount of off-color language added in Altman’s screenplay revision, John Grisham adopted a pseudonym and the film’s script is credited to Al Hayes.