Review: The Player (1992)

The Player


Robert Altman
Michael Tolkin (Novel: Michael Tolkin)
124 min.
As Characters: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Richard E. Grant, Sydney Pollack, Lyle Lovett, Dina Merrill, Angela Hall, Leah Ayres. As Themselves: Steve Allen, Richard Anderson, Rene Auberjonois, Harry Belafonte, Shari Belafonte, Karen Black, Michael Bowen, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Cher, James Coburn, Cathy Lee Crosby, John Cusack, Brad Davis, Paul Dooley, Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Dennis Franz, Teri Garr, Leeza Gibbons, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould, Joel Grey, David Alan Grier, Buck Henry, Anjelica Huston, Kathy Ireland, Sally Kellerman, Sally Kirkland, Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Jayne Meadows, Martin Mull, Jennifer Nash, Nick Nolte, Alexandra Powers, Burt Reynolds, Jack Riley, Julia Roberts, Mimi Rogers, Annie Ross, Alan Rudolph, Jill St. John, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner, Ray Walston, Bruce Willis.
MPAA Rating
R for language, and for some sensuality

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Robert Altman was the impresario of the ensemble drama. Others have tried their best to match his capabilities, but most have fallen short. In The Player, not only does Altman perform his usual magic, but he draws in Hollywood stars from several generations to backdrop this clever murder mystery set in the Hollywood writers office.

Tim Robbins stars as noted writers executive Griffin Mill whose job it is to listen to story pitches, even the most oddball and give them the greenlight or ignore them completely. When he begins receiving threatening postcards in the mail, he begins to question his process and his safety. Using Hollywood tropes, he deduces that his mystery, would-be writer-assassin must have visited him five months prior and, going through his catalogue of writers and submissions, he discovers that agitated screenwriter David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), may be the offending mail-stalker.

After he confronts the man at a movie theater showing The Bicycle Thief, he gets a few drinks with him and, in a fit of rage kills him. Not realizing what he’s done until the deed is accomplished, he panics, pulling out even more Hollywood movie cliches to try and cover up his crime. Then his paranoia really sets in as he begins seeing Kahane’s girlfriend June (Greta Scacchi), continues receiving threatening letters (he killed the wrong man) and gets stalked by another suspicious character (Lyle Lovett).

You don’t sit down to a movie like this and not expect a handful of twists to keep the story interesting. After all, this is a film based on Hollywood and its penchant for predictability. That means you know from the instant you meet Kahane that despite his aggressive personality, he’s not the angry writer threatening Griffin. It also means you know that Lovett is more than he appears and that, in spite of being a despicable character that Griffin will likely get away with murder. This isn’t a film you should expect to be shocked by, it’s a movie to sit down and enjoy because there’s more interesting elements to the film than the storyline.

Altman’s characters are very aware of the movie business, as he must have been when he started this film more than 20 years after he began his career there, and if they weren’t you would probably be upset. These guys work in the business and it shows. They are intimately aware of the intricacies of backdoor deals and big screen tradition. The opening scene alone sets your expectations for what kind of film it will be. Employing a dizzingly engaging one-take tracking shot to open the film, while we intermittently hear Mills listening to pitches in his office, we are given glimpses and snippets of conversation about Hollywood’s business side. We also hear the periodic discussion between two characters about the cleverness of Orson Welles’ legendary one-take tracking shot that opens Touch of Evil This kind of self-aware observation is humorous by itself and tonally estabishes the rest of the film. It also does one other thing, it tells the audience that they should expect traditional movie cliches to be commented on, complained about, but ultimately utilized at every turn. The closing scenes of the film are set in the screening room where the various executives are watching a film that had been sold near the half-way point of the film. There isn’t an aspect of this film-within-a-film that you don’t expect and you can’t help but smile at just how clever the execution has been.

Altman’s actors aren’t always the most exotic or the most bombastic, but they fit their characters effectively. Robbins helps the audience like, but intensely dislike Griffin Mill. He’s the kind of guy who gets what he wants even if he doesn’t deserve it. You root for and against him simultaneously. Fred Ward is probably the most interesting character in the film. As one of the studio’s lawyers, his biting commentary and stiff bearing make him more unlikable than the people he works for, but his no-nonsense approach is the most honest in the film. Whoopi Goldberg is a bit too giddy as Detective Avery, the cop investigating the murder, though that seems to be a intention of the script. Cynthia Stevenson as Griffin’s assistant/lover is probably the most engaging character in the film. She’s the only one you come out caring about her well-being.

There’s one aspect of the film that’s probably more fun than any other and that’s playing Celebrity Tag. Making a film about Hollywood without showing us its stars would have been a lost opportunity. and Altman doesn’t hold back giving us more cameos per capita than any film since Around the World in 80 Days in 1956. They may not all have lines (Jack Lemmon sits quietly playing the piano in the background of one scene while the likes of Sally Kirkland and Sally Kellerman silently look on), but they are also noticeable in some way. It almost becomes a game of Where’s Waldo trying to pick out the celebs in each frame and, unlike a younger director, Altman has no qualms about featuring legends both young and old. The film includes noted performers like Jayne Meadows and Cher, Joel Grey and John Cusack, Rod Steiger and Marlee Matlin. And, if you blink, you might miss a few, which might give the film more re-watch value than anything else. So drenched in celebrities is the film that when someone you recognize appears on screen, such as Dean Stockwell, you immediately wonder if they are an actual character in the film or are playing themselves. Stockwell plays a character, but Malcolm McDowell does not. Ultimately, it’s a bit confusing, but it’s well worth it.

One of the keys to the film’s success is that it’s got both a positive and negative view on Hollywood. It’s not a blistering look at Hollywood, it’s a gentle prodding that’s more like loving disdain. The Player‘s self-awareness, self-parody and self-appreciation make for a self-inflicted good time.
Review Written
August 16, 2011

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