Tim Robbins is "The Player."
Or, more precisely, his character, hotshot Hollywood producer Griffin Mill, is the Player. And he's a player in more ways than one. Think of all the definitions you can for "a player," negative and positive, and they all fit in this 1992 satire of Hollywood and Hollywood movie studios from director Robert Altman.
Screenwriter Michael Tolkin adapted his script from his own novel, and Robert Altman picked it up. It was a perfect vehicle for Altman, actually, since he was used to handling large ensemble casts, interweaving multiple characters into a story, and mocking questionable social mores with high good humor. Think of films like "MASH," "Nashville," "Short Cuts," "Popeye," "Kansas City," "Cookie's Fortune," and "Godford Park." With Hollywood as his target, Tolkin and Altman don't have to exaggerate too much to make their points.
Yet the film is not entirely scathing, probably letting the industry off easier than it deserves. Altman is at once critical (the movie is a satire, after all) yet affectionate. By the time it's over, we don't come to love or hate anyone in it; for all its goofiness, we wind up simply agreeing with it.
Of course, we've had a multitude of movie satires about the movie business, including the best of the bunch, "Sunset Boulevard." But here's the thing: Altman makes his version all the more compelling by populating it with a literal host of real-life movie stars, some playing fictional characters and some playing themselves. In fact, there are so many stars showing up in this film, if I were an actor in Hollywood and Altman didn't ask me to be in his film, I'd have been offended.
Let me give you an idea of who's involved and what they're up to: First, there's Tim Robbins as the central character I mentioned, Griffin Mill, a producer who's feeling insecure because, on the one hand, he's got an up-and-coming producer itching for his job, and, on other the hand, he's got a wacko psychopath sending him threatening postcards. Through a series of convoluted circumstances, the latter event leads to murder. In the central role, Robbins is superb, his character clearly supercilious but never too full of himself, never a nice guy but never a villain, either. Robbins makes us like the character even when we're disliking him. Neat trick.
Then, we find Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward), the sleazy head of studio security; Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), the sleazy producer after Mill's job; Joel Levison (Brion James), the sleazy head of the studio; David Kahane (Vincent D'onofrio), a sleazy, unproduced writer; Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell), a sleazy talent agent; Tom Oakley (Richard E. Grant), a sleazy screenwriter; and Dick Mellon (Sydney Pollack), a sleazy studio lawyer. About the only ordinary people in the story are Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson), Mill's girlfriend, a script editor and decent-enough human being; and June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), a total Hollywood outsider.
You want other names in the story? How about Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett as the police officers investigating the murder case. Or how about Dina Merrill, Jeremy Piven, Gina Gershon, and brothers Michael and Stephen Tolkin as secondary characters. And scattered about casually playing themselves: Steve Allen, Rene Auberjonois, Harry Belafonte, Karen Black, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Cher, James Coburn, John Cusack, Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Terri Garr, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliot Gould, Joel Grey, Angelica Huston, Sally Kellerman, Jack Lemmon, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Martin Mull, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Patrick Swayze, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner, and Bruce Willis, to name only a few.
People come and go in the fashion we're accustomed to in an Altman film, appearing to ad lib or improvise along the way. And we get a myriad of peripheral detail surrounding the main murder plot, much of the detail subtly skewering Hollywood manners and types. For instance, the first time we meet Mill, a real-life writer, Buck Henry (who co-wrote "The Graduate"), is pitching a new movie idea to him: "The Graduate, Part 2." At lunch with fellow studio folk, Mill asks all of them around the table, "Could we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change? We're educated people." They can't think of anything. Later, when Mill finds out that a rival producer is going to an AA meeting, he says to him, "I didn't realize you had a drinking problem." The other producer replies, "I don't, really, but that's where all the deals are being made these days." Not hilarious, but still funny stuff.
The fact is, every character and every word of "The Player" is some sort of movie reference. Think of almost any film or any person in Hollywood, and they're probably in the movie somewhere in some way.
Altman was never one for shooting big, elaborate movies in the widest screens. Most of his films, despite their big-name casts, he shot at an ordinary 1.85:1 ratio like this one. New Line's video engineers transferred it to Blu-ray disc using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec, most likely making it look as good as they could manage. The trouble is that the video quality of the original print seems to vary from scene to scene, sometimes gritty and fuzzy, sometimes sharp and tidy; sometimes rough and grainy, sometimes clear and clean; sometimes soft and faded, sometimes vivid and bright. Most of it, fortunately, is more than acceptable.
The good news: The sound comes via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The bad news: There isn't much 5.1 sound of any kind for the lossless audio to work with. This is a plain-vanilla soundtrack, mostly front center-bound, with hardly any surround activity most of the time. Indeed, for the first half of the movie there's hardly any front-channel stereo. However, the soundtrack does become a little more rambunctious as it goes along, throwing a little ambient noise into the rear speakers: wind noise, cars, crowds, and occasional musical bloom.
There's not a lot in the way of extras on the disc, and what we do get is in standard definition. Possibly of most importance is the audio commentary by director Robert Altman and writer Michael Tolkin. In addition, we get a seventeen-minute featurette, "One on One with Robert Altman," that includes a few scenes not in the movie; plus, we get about thirteen minutes of additional deleted scenes.
The extras conclude with a full-screen theatrical trailer; twenty-four scene selections; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The only problem with "The Player" is that there are so many star cameos and so many movie references, watching it becomes almost a parlor game of filmdom trivia pursuit. Still, if you can get beyond the movie's surface gloss (which isn't hard, actually), you'll find a biting spoof of everything that's undoubtedly wrong with Hollywood studios and the people who work in them. Yet, at the same time, it's never so biting that it bites the hand that feeds it. Instead, Altman performs a bit of legerdemain, poking fun at the film industry while simultaneously paying tribute to it. It's enjoyable all the way around.
"Movies: Now more than ever!"