Robert Altman doing John Grisham? The idea might prompt the image of a wicked parodist twirling the tail of a cash cow. The director of The Long Goodbye, Nashville and The Player-to name but a few of the best of Altman's sendups-might be expected to regard material by one of America's most bankable and frequently screen-adapted novelists as fodder for his wit. The Grisham 'formula,' after all, has been trotted out in thriller after thriller with dull regularity. Altman, however, has played things straight. Not unlike an auteur cohort, Francis Coppola, Altman appears to have used a Grisham vehicle to put his Hollywood career back on track. But whereas Coppola wisely took the straight-ahead, good-vs.-evil plot of John Grisham's The Rainmaker as an opportunity to rein in his artiness, Altman, who for his last picture went begging to France for money, on evidence has made The Gingerbread Man simply to keep his hand in the studio pot. Though his producers, in a publicized battle, relented to Altman's own cut, the core ambition of this film is hardly to make a personal statement.

In Savannah, as a storm picks up off the coast, trial lawyer Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) finds himself quickly enmeshed in a case that blurs the lines between his personal and professional duty. After attending a party in his honor, he crosses paths with Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), whose car has just been stolen. Too much of a gentleman to leave a lady abandoned in the middle of the night, he gives Mallory a drive home. Finding her car safe and sound at her residence is the first clue of something strange afoot, but others rapidly follow. Mallory discloses that the thief was most likely her own father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall), a religious zealot who had a hand in breaking up her marriage and now stalks her. Rick responds by pursuing two paths at once: assisting in locating Dixon and representing her in a hearing to have her father institutionalized, while also playing the role of protector and falling in love with her. His lines of behavior are incompatible, and made even more complicated by his attraction to law partner Lois Harlan (Daryl Hannah), his strong emotional commitment to his two children, and the bitter reproaches to his whirlagig lifestyle by his ex-wife, Leeanne (Famke Janssen).

Rick draws himself into a predicament with more snares than he could ever foresee. Old man Dixon has an army of geriatric followers, and they bust him out of the psycho ward. The father swears vengeance on his daughter's lover, but, true to Grisham's familiar offering of a fantastic twist near story's end, Dixon turns out to be only one worry of several for Rick. Ultimately, Rick will have to choose between strictly legal procedure and what he believes is compellingly right-while the facts of the matter keep rising to the surface. As the hurricane building off-shore moves into Savannah, Rick makes a dramatic decision that, while arguably just, comes at a high personal cost.

Altman has indisputably captured a dank, stuffed visual atmosphere throughout that nicely complements the dense intricacies of the story. The lengthy, opening aerial shot of Savannah's beaches, veiled behind grayish mists, sets up a feeling of impenetrable mystery. Enigmatic surfaces are part of the Altman aesthetic, but The Gingerbread Man contains only dabs and traces of the director's vision. Zooms and pans, Altman's most notable trademarks, are barely present. The film is also practically laughproof; even Vincent & Theo had more humor. More disquieting are elements that contradict Altman's climate of ambivalence. A nightmare that Mallory has about her father the very evening that he escapes the asylum is the sort of simplistic, pulpy mysticism that an earlier film like Three Women flatly refuted. Scenes of Dixon and his loony band are such embarrassing clichs of old coots that the director's devotees should laugh right along with audiences not familiar with Altman.

Altman has at least salvaged some credible performances. Branagh, after first trying in Dead Again, has mastered a passable American accent. Duvall does what he can with a stock part, but he's more interesting as a similarly narrow-minded, but human and flawed minister in his own The Apostle. While not really a bad piece of craft, The Gingerbread Man does not make an intriguing foray by a national artist into the mainstream, either. Over the last ten years, Altman has been batting about .500 in his work; he hasn't put any points on that average.

--Peter Henné