The Player (1992) / Thriller-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for a scene of violence, sexuality, brief nudity, and language
Running Time: 124 min.

Cast: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Whoopi Goldberg, Lyle Lovett, Fred Ward, Dean Stockwell, Richard E. Grant, Vincent D'Onofrio, Sydney Pollack, Dina Merrill, Angela Hall, Jeremy Piven, Gina Gershon, Buck Henry, Scott Glenn (cameo), Cher (cameo), Andie McDowell (cameo), Malcolm McDowell (cameo), Bruce Willis (cameo), Julia Roberts (cameo), Burt Reynolds (cameo), James Coburn (cameo), John Cusack (cameo), Anjelica Huston (cameo), Jeff Goldblum (cameo), Marlee Matlin (cameo), Lily Tomlin (cameo), Steve Allen (cameo), Harry Belafonte (cameo), Shari Belafonte (cameo), Rene Auberjonois (cameo), Karen Black (cameo), Gary Busey (cameo), Robert Carradine (cameo), Cathy Lee Crosby (cameo), Peter Falk (cameo), Louise Fletcher (cameo), Dennis Franz (cameo), Teri Garr (cameo), Leeza Gibbons (cameo), Elliott Gould (cameo), Joel Grey (cameo), David Alan Grier (cameo), Kathy Ireland (cameo), Steve James (cameo), Sally Kellerman (cameo), Sally Kirkland (cameo), Jack Lemmon (cameo), Jayne Meadows (cameo), Martin Mull (cameo), Nick Nolte (cameo), Mimi Rogers (cameo), Alan Rudolph (cameo), Jill St. John (cameo), Susan Sarandon (cameo), Rod Steiger (cameo), Robert Wagner (cameo), Patrick Swayze (cameo)
Director: Robert Altman
Screenplay: Michael Tolkin (based on his novel)
Review published May 10, 2007

Tim Robbins (Cadillac Man, Tapeheads) plays hotshot Hollywood studio exec Griffin Mill, who believes that he may soon be on the outs with the studio now that they've hired another up-and-comer in Larry Levy (Gallagher, Sex Lies and Videotape), who was hired from a rival studio. As if things weren't stressful enough, Griffin has also been receiving postcards and faxes of an increasingly hostile nature from a screenwriter whose script was one of many that was not chosen as a project. Griffin checks the appointment book and suspects that the disgruntled screenwriter may be David Kahane (D'Onofrio, Full Metal Jacket), to whom he decides to pay a visit. One there, he speaks with an attractive woman living with David named June (Scacchi, Presumed Innocent), and he strikes up a prolonged conversation with her before encountering Kahane at a local theater. The two meet for drinks, then get into a heated argument that ends with Griffin, in a rage, killing Kahane. After covering his tracks, Griffin becomes a suspect, as he was the last reported person to see Kahane alive. tension begins to brew as the cops come sniffing around, as well as studio security, and things only escalate when Griffin begins to talk more frequently with June, increasing suspicion.

Insider jokes abound, in this very incisive satirical thriller that represents one of director Robert Altman's (The Long Goodbye, Brewster McCloud) finest films in his career. Borrowing elements from the book by Michael Tolkin (Deep Impact, Changing Lanes), adapted by Tolkin himself (he would go on to win the Academy Award for his adapted screenplay), Altman weaves this tapestry of characters as a springboard by which to comment about the cynical nature of the moviemaking business, where deals are cut on a whim, art is sucked out of the writing for purely commercial reasons, and movies made from the heart seem to have no place in the production process. Altman himself had spent many years working outside the studio system for that very reason, as they consistently requested modifications to his work because they felt audiences didn't want or care to see films that they consider to be depressing or personal. Not surprisingly, The Player would also be one of his more independent productions, though its studio Fine Line/New Line would eventually be swallowed up by Turner/Time Warner not long after the film's release.

Despite being a small studio release, a plethora of big star cameo appearances abound, many of them unplanned, as shooting locations were often staged where Hollywood stars would coincidentally frequent. Tim Robbins gives one of his best performances as the cold-hearted producer whose only instinct is survival, willing to cut the throats (metaphorically speaking) of anyone that stands between him and what he's built up. In addition to the murder, he encourages his sweet-hearted girlfriend (and colleague) to leave town so that he can pursue a new relationship with June, and also tries to finagle Levy into getting in deep with a project he thinks is doomed to fail, just so that he can play hero.

The humor which is plentiful, is never obvious, using visual cues (old movie posters are a motif), and subtle allusions to other films as a springboard for self-referential digs on the film creation process.  Starting with a lengthy tracking shot lasting several minutes, Altman pays homage to the beginning of Welles' Touch of Evil and Hitchcock's Rope, not only in technique, but also in subconsciously calling up those films to mind, foreshadowing the sinister, murderous events that are soon to follow.  It's also a jet black comedy, putting us in the unenviable position of rooting for Griffin to literally get away with murder, as well as getting the girl (the dead man's girl, no less), while also screwing over his rivals, professionally and personally.

The Player is a film that is very film literate, and although it can be enjoyed as a straightforward tale of murder and cover-up, the more you know about the various allusions to Hollywood films of yesteryear and the mechanics of the moviemaking process today, the more rewards you will reap from Altman's complex presentation.  One truly can compare the watching of how big studios and their hired bigwigs operate as the equivalent of watching how sausage gets made, as many of us to very much enjoy the end product, but we would be less pleased if we were to know how a kernel of inspiration from the mind of a writer can be second-guessed and repackaged due to executive decisions made by relatively visionless empty suits who are in the creation process solely to make money, squeezing out all trace of artistic merit where it interferes with bottom-line profit. 

Though most behind-the-scenes features showcase the production process once filming is underway, The Player gives us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of the behind-the-scenes process, where the only dreams that come true are for the people up top -- the people who feel that anyone can make a story that will entertain millions, while the lowly creators that nurtured the initial ideas are seen as little more then expendable goods hardly worth receiving input from once the studio handlers squeeze their foots in the door, symbolically getting away with murder -- the figurative death of the writer in the Hollywood production process.

-- A pilot for a proposed television series based on the characters of this film was made, but never released in 1997 

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo