Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin
Starring Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi and a galaxy of Hollywood stars
Reviewed by Lee Wallace
The Player, Robert Altman's take on Hollywood, has such a breezy and assured buzz you could be forgiven for overlooking its more malodorous implications.
Altman and scenarist Michael Tolkin (working from his novel) have made a social satire the likes of which we haven't seen since its heyday in the mid-'70s. The Player has the hip, smart swagger of films such as Shampoo and Altman's own Nashville, both made in 1975.
The film's subject is the rotten state of North American film making and, less obviously but more ominously, '90s audience claquery. These themes could easily have become, in less skilled hands, an exercise in artless cynicism; instead the film is gripping and rich, with a deliciously potent sting in its tail. It is an important, shrewd, disturbing work.
Griffen Mill (Tim Robbins) is the studio executive "player" of the title. He is receiving death threats from a writer whose phone calls he hasn't bothered to return and whose identity he doesn't know. In a milieu in which moral bankruptcy and paranoia are de rigueur, we find ourselves gradually sympathising with Robbins' reptilian Mill. This sympathy is drawn out further by the appearance, in the corporate wings, of a replacement: an even more Machiavellian executive whose stated guiding principle in the movie business is to eliminate the writer completely from the creative process.
By the time Griffen murders a writer, believing him to have been the source of the threats, and then woos the dead man's beautiful and enigmatic girlfriend (Greta Scacchi), we have become so used to the machinations of Hollywood film making that we accept immorality as part as a cinematic natural order. Griffen has been skilfully positioned as the nearest thing in the film to a hero.
Altman manipulates his audience, then exposes the artistic and moral effect of his manipulations.
The opening, all-in-one-take, 8
55D> minute shot serves as a concise introduction to the film's main components and highlights its deliberately self-reflexive pose. From this shot on, we are aware that we are watching a movie about the making of movies, a movie that refers constantly to other, real and fictional.
There are witty running jokes. The camera pans repeatedly to close-ups of posters for classic films, particularly thrillers with dramatically apt titles. Cameo appearances by stars playing themselves, from Bruce s to Marlee Maitlin, Cher and Bert Reynolds, provide both a spectator sport and a further link between the film's world and the film world.
The acting is fine. Robbins, his lanky frame pressed into designer suits, has invested Mill with a sly charm. He is a recognisable human figure, but his eyes, like two slits in his baby face, betray his feral cunning. He has the flop-sweat of a paranoiac.
Scacchi turns a part which could have been little more than a cipher (it was rewritten extensively during shooting) into a fascinating, believable character. Her first encounter with Griffen Mill is memorable. He watches her through huge-paned windows from outside her home while they converse by mobile phone. The scene has a prickly, voyeuristic feel that underlines the characters' emotional detachment.
The film is also a lot of fun for the audience. Whoopi Goldberg turns up as a police detective, nonchalantly twirling a tampon as she grills Griffen about his sex life.
But the amusement precedes a bracing coda. Early in the film Griffen has defined the "essential elements that we need to market a film successfully" as "suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex and happy endings". The Player contains all these elements, but they have been twisted out of their comfortable, commercial sockets. For example, the film has nudity, but as Paul Newman remarked after a preview screening, "... you don't get to see the tits you want to see, and you get to see the ones you don't want to see".
Similarly the film delivers a happy ending, twice: one for the film within the film and one for the film itself, but they are unhappy happy endings. We laugh at the absurdity, but, as Altman has explained, "... the bad guy in the film is the audience because the audience is the one that demands that kind of film".
The Player has a resonance that becomes unsettling as its subtext becomes apparent. To quote Altman again, "... it's about the worst parts of our culture, all the worst parts of this art."