The Player

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The Player is a movie that we actually didn’t get to in my Altman and contemporaries class, and since we’ve been stuck in the “contemporaries” half of the class lately, I decided I really missed Altman and wanted to see his comeback. It’s not as if he wasn’t working steadily throughout the 80s, but critically he definitely wasn’t in the spotlight. The Player might not quite reach Altman’s early seventies glory, but then again, what does.

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is a shallow studio executive who’s worried about his job, and also his life. The studio has just hired another executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), probably to replace Griffin (though everyone denies it). Griffin also keeps getting threatening postcards from a writer whom he promised to call back but apparently never did. He wracks his brain trying to figure out which disgruntled screenwriter it could be, and tracks down one David Kehane (Vincent D’Onofrio) in the hopes that it’s him who’s sending the postcards and if he offers him a job he’ll cut it out. He confronts him, but things don’t go as planned and Kehane ends up dead. Griffin’s not really sure what to do in the sticky situation he’s in, which gets even more awkward when he falls for the late Kehane’s lover, June (Greta Scacchi).

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While he’s being pursued by the police, he’s also trying to make hit movies. The film goes through great pains to make the audience feel like they are getting an insider’s look at Hollywood here. Sometimes I wonder if the film is trying a bit too hard with the constant parade of guest stars marching through nearly every scene, but regardless it was fun to pick out all those famous actors. It did get confusing at points as to who was playing themselves and who was playing a character, and a there are a few movies within the movie, sometimes the answer is both (Sidney Pollack’s character really confused me). A lot of Altman films do this anyway though; I feel as if he’s made more movies with random Elliott Gould sightings than without. He really does turn it up to 11 here though.

This movie isn’t really a conventional mystery, but more of a suspense/satire because you are really just waiting for if and when Griffin will be caught. This shameless self-interest of the studio executive who really has no idea of the creative or physical toil of making film stealing the life and love of a struggling writer fuels both the humor and the tragedy. It seems that Altman is ridiculing Griffin for having absolutely no clue how to make a movie, as well as the Hollywood machine that embraces him and his kind. The only real problem I have with this film is that this criticism of the film industry is really nothing new, and the way Altman goes about it keeps us at such a remove that it’s hard to feel any indignation about it. It just seems like business as usual.

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I feel as if it’s really hard to do these institutional condemnations like this. I’ve said it time and time again on the blog with films like Nightcrawler and Ace in the Hole…. eventually criticisms of the media all start to sound the same. It’s very hard to bring something new to them, and what Altman has going for him here is his signature style. It maybe doesn’t make the film stand out as much as it needs to, but I believe it makes it a lot better compared to a hypothetical version directed by someone other than Altman. The trademark cacophony of both sound and visuals really creates some anxiety in the viewer during this film. You’ll have those classic Altman scenes of separate groups of people all in earshot, and you’re feeling kind of worried for Griffin because he needs to eavesdrop on them all at the same time and can’t possibly. And we can’t either.

You can’t talk about this film without talking about the famous opening shot: the extended 8 minute take that zooms and tracks around a studio lot as everyone goes about their business. Altman perhaps gets a little too meta here, but honestly who’s complaining (I mean I guess I am, sort of….). He has Fred Ward’s character discuss how movie’s nowadays are over-edited, referencing both the beginning of Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s Rope in the process. He goes even further by ending the sustained shot the same way Welles does in Touch of Evil, equating the violence of the cut with the violence in the story. Whereas a bomb goes off in that earlier film, here Robbins gets his first postcard. It totally works, and it sets up the meta-nature of the film wonderfully, though for some reason I’m still worried that it might be too much. Furthermore, if we’re being honest, Welles is the perfect director to reference in a film about how Hollywood undervalues artists.

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The ending of the film, I feel, has similar problems as the opening. To be clear, The Player is not Sunset Boulevard, it’s not a horror film at all. It’s much gentler a satire than MASH as well. Sure, it has it’s tense moments, but overall it’s not an incredibly heavy picture. I wonder if that sort of (not completely of course, there is a lot of very high level technique going on here) puts in the same category as the types of movies Griffin makes. SPOILER ALERT Griffin green-lights a script that is remarkably similar to his own experiences throughout the film, which is also titled The Player. So if The Player is the type of movie Griffin would make, what is Altman saying about his own film? It ends in exactly the same way the Julia Roberts vehicle does. END SPOILERS. Basically, while the ending was cute and funny, I’m not sure if it undercut the satire or not.

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While I seem to have mixed feelings about almost every aspect of this film, there was one thing I unquestionably appreciated, and that was the lead performance by Tim Robbins. How he manages to make a completely empty shell of a human being watchable is beyond me. He’s certainly not likable but he’s not really that unlikable either, despite the horrible things his character does and what he stands for. He also manages to look stupid and dashing at the same time. He somehow embodies nothing and something simultaneously. That doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but it had a powerful effect on me throughout the film.

I did like The Player, and I have a feeling, as with a couple of other Altman films, that when I go back to it I’ll like it a lot more. I recognize a lot of interesting things Altman’s playing around with here, but I’m not really sure if they all work towards his indictment of Hollywood effectively. The Player is 100% worth seeing, if just for that opening shot alone but certainly for Tim Robbins’ performance. While I think other films have done the “Hollywood is devoid of artistic integrity” thing better, I still gotta give The Player some credit.

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“If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review
LA Times review
The New York Times review

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