Ostensibly Robert Altman’s “film about film”, The Player ends up being more than that. It’s a stylish film, that draws from numerous genres and influences, melding them together into a new blend of thriller. It’s also probably the film that takes the hottest skewers to the Hollywood system that has ever been made. I don’t think I could list very many directors that could get away with a film like this, but I’d probably put down Robert Altman’s name on there; he just seems so ‘outside the system’, and indeed he worked largely outside studio control after the box office bomb that was 1980’s Popeye. The Player would be both his return to Hollywood and a return to form, and boy does Altman ever choose a hell of a film to reintroduce himself to Hollywood with.
Tim Robbins stars as Griffin Mill, a hotshot Hollywood executive who is currently on his way out with the upper bigwigs of the studio. He’s also been receiving very threatening postcards, which prompts him to look back in his files for writers he may have wronged in a certain timeframe. He settles on David Kahane, and sets up a meeting with the writer that quickly turns sour; Kahane, like most wannabe writers in Hollywood, having been burned by studio execs like Mill. In the parking lot, they get into an altercation, and Griffin ends up accidentally killing the man. Now he must try and save both his job and his life as a free man, as the postcards continue to show up, as well as Kahane’s former girlfriend, who swiftly becomes a love interest for Mill. Being a film about Hollywood, you would expect the film to either play it straight or be as self-referential as possible, and The Player falls so much into the latter it seems like it’s laughing at you for thinking it would be anything otherwise. The film is incredibly tongue-in-cheek with its multitude of references to films and the filmmaking method itself. The film starts off, for instance, with two people on a studio lot bemoaning the fact that they don’t make films anymore like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and its famous opening tracking shot… while the camera itself is swooping around the lot, jumping between characters and conversations in one long massive tracking shot. Altman’s film both plays its tropes straight and also has a decidedly meta approach to them, which makes for a multitude of references and little hidden easter eggs for film aficionados and people within the business itself. Tim Robbins, one of my favorite actors, is excellent in a role that would win him Best Actor accolades at Cannes, and the film features a veritable who’s who of celebrity cameos, who all agreed to do the film for free or the minimum allowable payscale. I did have a significant issue with the plot, and it’s one I’ve seen pop up in a few films from the list. At a certain point in the film, it is necessary for two characters, the lead and the romantic interest, to move their relationship forward into the next phase. Only problem is, nothing up to then has led into the two characters genuinely moving into this next phase; they’re still a few steps behind. So, what does the film do to cover this ground? It doesn’t; it just up and moves the characters into the next phase forcibly, even though it makes their relationship all the less believable and realistic as a result. Although, now that I think of it, that might in and of itself be the very point; that these film characters in a film are basically smashed into a relationship a la Hollywood typicality rather than having it be realistic, as yet another meta-inside-of-meta joke about Hollywood pictures. Damn; if that’s actually the case, this just got a lot better than even I thought it already was.
Potential plot issues aside, this was so damn smarmy that it ended up being likable on the other end. I don’t really know how a film can pull that off as well as Altman’s film does here, but boy was this entertaining; both as a straight film and as a meta-filled wink-and-a-nod to everything Hollywood. Plus, it was darn well made to boot. If you enjoy films to any degree, watch this one, and see how many references and subtle hints you can pick up on your own, depending on your level of obsessiveness over anything Hollywood. I don’t know how enjoyable Altman’s remaining list films will be for me, but this one was right on the money in my eyes.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10