The Player (Blu-ray)(Warner Home Video, 9.7.2010)
After the widespread acclaim of Nashville, Robert Altman went into a famous decline, reduced to directing television films and adaptations of plays. His slow return to prominence began with the HBO political satire Tanner ’88 and then Vincent & Theo, a gritty Van Gogh biography from 1990. Two years later, Altman catapulted himself back into Hollywood favor with The Player, an unlikely industry favorite and easily his best film in twenty years. In depicting the machinations of a Hollywood film studio, the director found a topic that was a perfect match for his caustic wit.
Studio production chief Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) begins receiving threatening messages from a screenwriter he has wronged. Mill decides that the culprit is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and confronts him, which culminates in the screenwriter’s death. The police suspect Mill, especially when he dumps his studio girlfriend (Cynthia Stevenson) for the victim’s luscious companion (Greta Scacchi). Mill tries to carry on as if nothing has happened, meeting with screenwriters, hobnobbing with stars (all playing themselves) and trying to prevent the oily Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) from taking his job.
In The Player, Altman does what he does best: assemble a large cast, give them something interesting to do and weave in and out of the primary plot without ever losing focus. Having people like Cher, Jeff Goldblum, Angelica Huston, Jack Lemmon and Andie MacDowell pop up as themselves is more than a stunt. It also lends the film a sense of verisimilitude -- especially when Burt Reynolds calls Mill an asshole -- that's far more convincing than the lazy depiction of Hollywood we so often see in most movies about the film industry.
It would be easy to complain that Mill remains something of a cipher. After all, we know nothing about how he attained his position. But that’s the point that Altman and novelist/screenwriter Michael Tolkin are trying to make. Unlike those on the creative side, Hollywood executives achieve power less through talent and work than through chance. Fate seems to be protecting Mill, both in work and crime. Mill’s blankness (and Robbins’) also makes it possible to identify with a character who would be far more repellant if we knew more about him.
Much of the satire in The Player comes from the constantly expressed desire of the characters to make honest movies without worrying about their box-office potential only to have everyone cave in and make a formulaic piece of junk (this results in a hilarious parody at the end). Part of the irony is that Altman -- a maverick, who rarely had much commercial success -- turned The Player into a marginal box office hit.
Gallagher gives a subtle performance as the ambitious executive who will do anything to succeed, yet isn’t half as clever as he thinks. Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant stand out as neurotic screenwriters too eager to compromise and Fred Ward is good, as always, playing a studio security head who sees through Mill’s façade. As for the shockingly young and thin D’Onofrio, he throws his entire body into expressing his character’s bitter self pity.
To those of us of a certain age, The Player seems a relatively recent film. However, not only has D’Onofrio changed considerably but too many of those with cameos have faded or died (like Altman himself). The resulting sense of mortality and the brevity of success gives The Player a new layer of melancholy and insight.
The extras, holdovers from the 1997 DVD (some go all the way back to the Criterion laserdisc), include several deleted scenes, some identified as “lost footage,” which are actually longer versions of existing scenes. One on One with Robert Altman is a 16-minute, mostly negligible, clip-heavy featurette from 1993. Of more interest is the commentary by Altman and Tolkin (recorded separately). The writer is stiff and pompous, loosening up only when discussing his amusing cameo as a Coen-esque screenwriter. Apparently unfamiliar with Blood Simple, Stranger than Paradise and sex, lies and videotape (or Cassavetes and Romero decades earlier), Tolkin claims that The Player started the American independent movement.
Altman is apologetic about the opening long-take homage to Touch of Evil, claiming that he was being pretentious. But he's wrong. The cleverness of the scene is amusing and sets the tone for the film. Altman could be charming and informative in interviews, but he's too often vague and rambling here. He and Tolkin talk too infrequently about what’s on the screen, going off on all sorts of tangents.
While there’s nothing especially unique about this film's visuals, the Blu-ray has a clean look that makes it a worthy replacement for the previous DVD. -- Michael Adams