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The Gingerbread Man: A Lawyer Thriller Fails in Both Genres

by Michael Asimow and Paul Bergman, UCLA Law School (April 1998)

Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is an arrogant Savannah defense attorney whose office is celebrating a big victory. He befriends Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz) who works for the caterer. Soon thereafter, they’re in bed. And soon after that, Rick is handling pro bono a competency hearing in which Mallory is trying to institutionalize her crazy father (Robert Duvall).

Needless to say, however, Mallory has another agenda entirely. In a plot inspired by Double Indemnity and Body Heat, she entangles Rick in an elaborate scheme the details of which won’t be disclosed here. Suffice it to say that this movie belongs in the thriller genre, not the legal genre. And for us, at least, the thriller plot was murky and highly implausible. Thus we can’t recommend this film either for fans of lawyer movies or of thrillers. However, the film is capably directed by Robert Altman and beautifully photographed; the Savannah locations and Hurricane Geraldo are well executed (it really rains in the second half of this flic).

John Grisham is credited with writing the original story; the screenplay is credited to the pseudonymous Al Hayes, who may be Altman himself. There were apparently serious creative differences, including a major tussle between Altman and Polygram (which took the picture from him, recut it, and ultimately allowed him to release his original version). In our view, the disjointed plotting falls well below Grisham’s standards (the authors of this posting disagree on whether or not Grisham’s usual plots are pretty clever).

We focus here on the portrait of Rick as a lawyer. On the good side, he is a caring non-custodial parent of two young kids. He works hard to make his visits meaningful and heroically defends his kids when the bad guys place them in danger. He’s also a generous and caring attorney. Seeing Mallory apparently in danger from her father, he and his associate Lois spent thousands of dollars of uncompensated time having him institutionalized. And when this fails (dad breaks out of the loonybin), Rick goes to great lengths to protect her.

Nevertheless, there are bad sides to Rick Magruder. He is harsh, condescending, sometimes cruel to his employees—his office receptionist, his investigator, and his associate Lois. Failing to treat fellow workers with respect is a serious failing of many lawyers and it is well depicted here. Taking on Mallory’s competency case, while conducting an affair with her, is deeply problematic. Lawyers need to separate their client representation from their love life; the consequences of failing to do so are often dire, as numerous films such as Jagged Edge have shown.

Worst of all, Rick displays poor judgment about people and situations and frequently behaves quite impulsively. As Altman said in a recent interview, Rick is "the kind of lawyer I don’t like. He’s a killer in the courtroom, but the minute he gets outside his own element, he’s dog meat." In short, Rick isn’t someone you’d want to refer clients to.

Michael AsimowMichael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through


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