To Distrust of Human Nature, Add Heaping Hatred of Lawyers

Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man , from a screenplay by Al Hayes, based on an original story by John Grisham, takes place in a Savannah that bears little resemblance to the more scenic Savannah of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil . Indeed, the Savannah of The Gingerbread Man is as dark and somber as an Altman-Grisham collaboration could be. There is a late-breaking mystery plot encased in the narrative, but though I am usually the last to know the solution to even the most obvious whodunits, I must confess that I smelled something rotten in the state of Georgia right at the outset. Mix Mr. Altman’s profound pessimism about the human condition with Mr. Grisham’s knowledgeable disrespect for the legal profession, and you have the formula for a teeth-grinding foray into futility and misdirection.

Kenneth Branagh plays Dixieland defense attorney Rick Magruder with more molasses dripping from his often incomprehensible Southern accent than even the Old Vic would consider advisable. Like most successful workaholic professional men in movies these days, Magruder is divorced from his wife Leeanne (Famke Janssen) and often late for his custodial visits to his two children. He drinks a little too much and displays a roving eye early on in the proceedings, much to the amusement of his loyal but not lascivious legal assistant, Lois Harlan, played by Daryl Hannah, who is wasted in a sexless Girl Friday-but-Not-Saturday-Night role.

When Magruder becomes involved with a cocktail waitress named Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), she tells him that she is being stalked by her crazy-as-a-loon religious cultist father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall). The title refers to a story Mallory recalls her father used to tell her, frightening her. After Mallory’s cat is hanged, and her car torched, Magruder takes legal steps to have her father committed for psychiatric observation. But Dixon escapes from the asylum with the help of his fellow cultists. Threats against Magruder’s children follow in short order, and the police are reluctant to take much interest in the case because of Magruder’s prior lawsuits against overzealous police officers. He enlists the help of a dissipated detective, played by Robert Downey Jr. with the only semblance of charm in the whole movie.

Certainly, Mr. Branagh has never exuded charm in any accent despite his undeniable technical proficiency, and Ms. Davidtz never relaxes her expression of watchful agitation long enough to provide any behavioral grace notes. Ms. Janssen plays the ex-wife as a complete bitch. Mr. Duvall is made to seem menacing, more by what he is not seen doing than by his own infrequent screen manifestations, and Tom Berenger as Mallory’s ex-husband seems to materialize only as comic relief. The climax of the film, fittingly enough, occurs during a hurricane, making all the last-minute maneuverings of the characters dangerous to life and limb; they are threatened both by nature’s fury and human evil.

Still, Mr. Altman is not untrue to himself either thematically or stylistically. Like such illustrious predecessors as John Huston, Stanley Kubrick and Sam Peckinpah, Mr. Altman tends to go against the grain of feel-good conventions for his audiences. His masterpieces are still McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Nashville (1975), but of his recent work I can make a much stronger case for Short Cuts (1993) and Kansas City (1996) than for The Player (1992), Ready to Wear (1994) and The Gingerbread Man . Perhaps going against the grain is so much the thing to do in these confused times that it has lost its tang as a refreshing change of pace from so-called sentimental “commercialism.” Now even the bad mainstream movies are full of gloom and doom, anxiety and terror, paranoia and outright malignancy.

All I know is that The Gingerbread Man was persistently aggravating and exasperating from start to finish; nothing is actually the way it is presented and no one is what they seem to be. At first, out of force of habit, I scolded the characters for their mystifying behavior. Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? A few bizarre choices near the end still don’t make sense even after the trick-laden plot has been mumblingly explained to me.

There is much rage in The Gingerbread Man , but no passion. There is a kind of retribution, but no redemption. The Gingerbread Man is cold and dismal and ultimately unsatisfying, and yet one feels great risks were not taken, which is unusual for even the worst Altman films.

The Levinson Tapes

Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog , from a screenplay by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet, based on the book American Hero by Larry Beinhart, quickly crosses the thin line between mordant satire and facetious burlesque before it finally melts down in a drizzle of mindless nihilism worthy of the wildest ravings on the Internet. The film’s producers and publicists couldn’t have asked for anything more in the way of a newsy tie-in on the occasion of the movie’s wide release than the impending confrontation of President Clinton and Paula Jones.

The President in Wag the Dog gets into hot water just before Election Day by molesting an underage Girl Scout type in the Oval Office, and a special “plumbers” group in the White House basement is mobilized to distract the public from the scandal. This motley crew is led by Robert De Niro’s Conrad Brean, a Sloppy Joe media manipulator with the ability to start false rumors by issuing official denials of them from the start. To save the electorally endangered Presidency, Brean decides to fabricate a war with Albania. Why Albania, people ask Brean. Why not, he replies. His comely assistant, Anne Heche’s Winifred Ames, never bats an eye as she obeys her mentor’s cynical commands with a cellular phone capable of girdling the globe.

There are several precedents for media-created “wars” foisted on the public from The Mouse That Roared (1959) with Peter Sellers, to Canadian Bacon in 1995 with John Candy. But never before has the public been regarded with such condescension and contempt. We’ll believe anything, we are told again and again, just because we see it on television. There is some justification for this attitude in Wag the Dog , but the escalating exaggerations become increasingly wearying without any dramatic counterforce or audience raisonneur to lead us part of the way out of the sewer into which the movie’s “plumbers” have plunged us.

Still, the movie generates more than a few laughs from the savagely parodied Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss, a mogul to end moguls as played by Dustin Hoffman in an Oscar-worthy, though probably not Oscar-winning, takeoff that may hit too close to home in La-La land. The ego-consumed Stanley becomes cosmically narcissistic as he manufactures patriotic hysteria throughout the land through a mixture of computerized graphics accompanied by maudlin folk songs from the real-life Willie Nelson in the role of Johnny Green, a Willie Nelson clone in the movie.

The crunch comes when Stanley wants to take full producer’s credit for his biggest superproduction, even when Brean warns him that everything has to be hush-hush at all costs. Brean’s well-meant warnings fall on the deaf ears of the egomaniacal Stanley, and the Secret Service steps in to terminate Stanley with extreme prejudice. And why not? Recent movies have treated the White House as a cross between shooting gallery and den of thieves, and we are beyond being shocked. With all its wisecracks and pratfalls, Wag the Dog is simply, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again.

The Color Pink

Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink), from a screenplay by Chris van der Stappen and Mr. Berliner, is a film about childhood gender confusion in a Belgian company-town suburb with the expected alarums and excursions. Georges du Fresne plays with considerable charm and pathos Ludovic, a little boy who likes to wear dresses, and who develops a crush on a male classmate, much to the consternation of both their families in the too closely knit community in which everyone works for the same employer. Two serious themes are intertwined in this seemingly whimsical mixture of reality and fantasy, the first being parental and social attitudes toward presumed “abnormality” in a child’s gender consciousness, and the second the degree to which a company can intervene in the family lives of its employees.

The movie takes the “liberal” attitude that little boys should act like little girls if they are so inclined, even if it means being ostracized by the more conventionally programmed children of both sexes. It is easier to argue that one should love one’s child no matter what than to suggest that there are no problems in letting nature take its course. I doubt that this movie will ever be remade by a Hollywood studio, but until it is, American viewers may be unduly complacent in treating this delicate subject as an enjoyable opportunity to demonstrate their enlightenment on the subject in comparison to the outraged Belgian burghers in Ma Vie en Rose . To his credit, Mr. Berliner and his collaborators do not sugarcoat their subject or the pain it entails.