Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player represents another outstanding achievement in a directorial career that has had many richly deserved accolades over the course of more than a half-century’s work. The film follows Tim Robbins’ Griffon Mill, a Hollywood movie executive who finds himself the object of a despondent screenwriter’s obsession and is an example of satiric, dark comedy at its best.
Based on the novel by Michael Tolkin (who also wrote the screenplay), The Player manages to both beautifully mock Hollywood and yet – with eyes wide open – play into many of the tropes it mocks. Is the movie coming down pro-Hollywood? Is it coming down anti-Hollywood? The truth may actually be that it is simply out to spin an excellent yarn and willing to use any means at its disposal to do so.
It is clear from the famed opening tracking shot of the film, a shot which lasts over seven and a half minutes, the film is going to be satirizing Hollywood and typical Hollywood conventions. Not only does the opening track shot treat us to an introduction of many of the major players in the film, but it discusses famous film tracking shots (perhaps most notably Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil) that by its very nature it is mocking/paying homage to.
The plot of the film revolves around Mill who has been receiving death threats via postcards for several months from an unknown, unnamed writer who had a meeting with Mill and whom Mill never called back. At least, that’s the story that the postcard writer allows Mill to work out, whether or not it’s true is something the viewer will have to see for themselves. At the same time that Mill is trying to uncover his stalker, he is also fighting for his career at the studio as his boss, Joel Levison (Brion James), is bringing in another executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), in an attempt to force Mill out.
The film weaves back and forth between the two plots beautifully and Mill soon finds himself tracking down the man he believes to be the obsessed writer, David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio). Without giving too much away about the plot, the police (in the form of Whoopi Goldberg) are soon involved; Mill finds himself involved with not one, but two love interests (Cynthia Stevenson and Greta Scacchi); and dozens and dozens of Hollywood stars put in appearances as either themselves in cameos or characters in the film.
In fact, much of the fun in the film revolves around paying close attention to both the foreground and background to see exactly who you can see. It is easy to spot Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Lily Tomlin, Susan Sarandon, Burt Reynolds and many others who either speak or end up front and center in a camera shot, but then there are a whole lot more stars who say nothing and are just there in the background.
The caliber and quantity of the cameos does much more than simply make for an amusing game, it truly help situates the story in Hollywood. This is a dark comedy which first and foremost is about Hollywood and the process by which movies are made, having celebrities appear as themselves throughout the piece helps ground the characters in the film in the real world, and makes the mystery that much more intriguing. There is never a moment watching The Player when one doesn’t truly believe that such things happen in Hollywood all the time.
Cleverly crafted and with both witty dialogue and great performances throughout, The Player is dark, deadly serious, and yet terribly funny. In an industry which already semi-regularly pokes fun at itself, this movie raises the bar.
Where the film does not excel is in its Blu-ray release. Although the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is perfectly respectable, the dialogue-heavy film requires little of it, and the picture quality leaves something to be desired. The audio track is most noticeable during the score with some of its bass, otherwise it is simply there (but without hiss or pops). It won’t knock your socks off, but unlike the visuals there are no moments that disappoint. As for said visuals, there are some scenes in the film with a noticeable flicker to them, and others that contain far too much noise. This latter issue is particularly noticeable in a single, repeated, shot used late in the film and makes one think as though whomever was responsible for that portion forgot about the shot completely. The colors are good and there is often a great deal of detail, but the disappointing shots are the ones that will stick with the viewer.
In terms of special features, this new release contains a commentary track by Altman and Tolkin, deleted scenes, a trailer, and a featurette in which Altman discusses the film. None of it is by any means earth-shattering or groundbreaking, but both the commentary track and the featurette do contain some good insights.
Any deficiencies in the release aside, 18 years after its theatrical debut, The Player remains just as wise and witty a look at Hollywood as it ever was. The Hollywood the film satirizes is the same one that we all imagine still exists today and consequently, despite the outfits, the film doesn’t seem in the least bit dated. Between the great cast, great cameos, great director, and great screenplay, The Player remains a must-see film.