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By the 1990s Robert Altman had half-retreated to television, doing better there than he had on a decade's worth of feature films. Given a cultural clobbering with 1980's Popeye, Altman's aura as an auteur-guru dissipated for a few years. Movies like O.C. and Stiggs seemed so ill conceived and unentertaining, the director's future was in grave doubt. Altman's critical halo didn't return entirely until his solid hit The Player in 1992. Rather than go off in another odd direction, this Hollywood insider murder mystery was a return to Altman's broad-canvas 'circus' style of filmmaking. What might have been "Kafka in a film studio" became much more gimmicky and amusing. To begin with, The Player breaks the record for movie star cameos. Hardly a shot goes by that does not introduce another name actor -- not just celebrities, but real stars and current hot names -- popping up in every corner of the frame. In one swoop, Altman proved his mettle as a Hollywood ringmaster -- these dozens of celebrities aren't just cutaways, but are woven into the director's long-take master shots. For the first time in a decade, a general audience had a reason to think an Altman film was worth checking out.
Hollywood has already metamorphosed several times since 1992 -- I don't believe the present business practices allow most writers to initiate projects through cold pitch meetings. But the story setup is fairly true to a time when production heads and a few anointed dealmakers wielded tremendous power. These 'beautiful people' walk in golden circles but their job security is a big zero -- other slick operators are always gunning for those all-powerful catbird seats.
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is this season's dealmaker at a studio, but even he doesn't feel secure. Another glad-handing golden boy, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is threatening Griffin's position, and Griffin is feeling pressure from all sides. Executive Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) is always on his case, and studio head Joel Levinson (Brion James) warns Griffin to not behave when Levy joins "the team". Especially bugging Griffin is a string of threatening postcards from an unidentified writer who keeps threatening to kill him. Griffin takes dozens of writer's pitch meetings each week and often fails to return phone calls. He doesn't want to report the threats, as that will hurt his "cool" image, and doesn't even tell his present girlfriend, story editor Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson). Yet Griffin determines to hunt down the malefactor. He tracks the hotheaded writer David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) by first contacting David's girlfriend, artist June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Schacchi), who he's immediately attracted to.
When David turns up dead, Griffin finds himself even deeper in paranoid confusion. Walter Stuckel acts oddly, and an eccentric group of detectives (Whoopee Goldberg, Lyle Lovett) is playing mind games with him, in the hope of extracting a confession. Griffin has to deal with the unhappy girlfriend Bonnie, and his amorous new conquest June, all the while plotting Larry Levy's downfall. Is this how movies get made?
A fun, quirky thriller, The Player is only partially a satire on the Hollywood scene -- it's actually fairly realistic in most aspects. Big fish at the top of the studio food chain live in fancy Bel-Air houses and wear terrific clothes. Griffin Mill takes meetings all day with people dying to please him, and attends swank exclusive show-biz parties at night. Everyone's mileage varies, but a young single guy like Griffin has access to plenty of sex; he just has to be careful that he doesn't dump the wrong girlfriend. His present love Bonnie is quite serious, but Mill is willing to trade up the moment he sees the seductive June through the window of her West Hollywood bungalow. Even when the cops are on his tail, Griffin gets to suffer in style. Unable to leave the country, he takes June to a ritzy retreat out in the desert, a sex hideaway for the rich and talented.
Director Altman organizes much of the movie as a Fellini-like procession of complicated trucking shots as Griffin walks through the studio lot, interacting with various employees and stars along the way. Parties and visits to restaurants use famous faces like set decoration, and picking them all out is like looking at a Where's Waldo book. 1 People are constantly trying to nail Griffin into "conversations" that are really pitch meetings. Griffin picks an idea from one of these lunchtime ambushes to present to his production chief, and then hand off to his competitor Larry Levy. The idea of course, is to see Levy embrace the idea and go down in flames with it, a gag right from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
Writer Michael Tolkin resolves his crazy self-referential movie-puzzle movie by folding the story back upon itself. It's not very clever but it does harmonize with Robert Altman's idea of cinematic sophistication. Griffin Mill's personal dilemma is trivialized as the basis of a movie pitch, and the minimally creative wheels of Hollywood grind on. We've already seen Larry Levy's booby-trap movie idea morph into a lame, pandering but sure-fire hit, and now Griffin's own brush with blackmail, murder and evading justice will become another box office sensation. It's almost like the gag at the end of M*A*S*H, where the public address system that's been announcing camp movies, suddenly announces M*A*S*H itself, and runs through the fade-out credits. The pat finish to The Player is altogether too self-satisfied, but that's exactly the kind of ending the movie needs -- it fits the portrait given of the shallow, entitled, consequences-avoiding beautiful people of Movieland. 2
New Line's Blu-ray of The Player looks great -- Jean Lépine's radiant cinematography has none of the telephoto flatness of earlier Altman 'circus' movies. The non-anamorphic aspect ratio helps to avoid that tendency, but many of these images are richer and more colorful than we're used to seeing in an Altman picture.
Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin's commentary is pretty interesting. They start off by telling us that the complicated tracking shots that last thirty and forty seconds apiece were carefully rehearsed for camera and movement, but that actors were encouraged to improvise their lines. A number of additional scenes are included, several of which are just lead-ins to existing scenes. A theatrical trailer is also present, along with a featurette entitled One on One with Robert Altman.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Player Blu-ray rates:
1. Rather than try to work the deluge of star cameos into the review, here's a list shamelessly garnered from the IMDB. Many of these are more than one-shot who-dats? -- Altman secured the cooperation of a LOT of talent here: Gina Gershon, Michael Tolkin, Stephen Tolkin, Steve Allen, Richard Anderson, Rene Auberjonois, Harry Belafonte, Shari Belafonte, Karen Black, Michael Bowen, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Charles Champlin, Cher, James Coburn, Cathy Lee Crosby, John Cusack, Brad Davis, Paul Dooley, Thereza Ellis, Peter Falk, Felicia Farr, Kasia Figura, 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, Steve James, Sally Kellerman, Sally Kirkland, Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Jayne Meadows, Martin Mull, Nick Nolte, Alexandra Powers, Bert Remsen, Guy Remsen, Patricia Resnick, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Mimi Rogers, Annie Ross, Alan Rudolph, Jill St. John, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Joan Tewkesbury, Brian Tochi, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner, Ray Walston, Bruce Willis, Althea Gibson, Patrick Swayze.
2. Oddly, the movie of Get Shorty uses a similar story structure, including the "plot itself becomes a movie" idea from The Player. Elmore Leonard's book predated Robert Altman's movie, but Michael Tolkin's book came first.
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T'was Ever Thus.