“… with a heart”
When thinking about a satire on Hollywood, the idea to glorify its luck, ego, and excess rather than vilify probably wouldn’t be the direction your mind gravitates towards. To some extent this may ensure the exercise will prove pointless because the message shifts from showing everything wrong that needs fixing into everything wrong that you can also enjoy if the opportunity to join the hedonistic fun ever presented itself. You wouldn’t necessarily take the time to lambast if you weren’t angry at the status quo and desperate to share your discontent. Except this is exactly what Robert Altman‘s The Player does. He finds a story that turns Hollywood into a Hollywood movie complete with star-studded cameos, tense melodrama, and a good old-fashioned happy ending. This is a roast.
It’s quite successful in its hilarity and exacting nature of its business quirks. Perhaps too successful considering its use of tired tropes ends up making the film fall prey to their inherent tiredness. It’s mocking the industry’s universal disdain for writers (it’s a visual medium and therefore a director’s art despite the necessity of scripts to begin the journey), faux know-it-all critics and fans (Fred Ward‘s studio security chief Walter Stuckel loves long-take set-up shots, always mentioning Touch of Evil yet always ignorant to any other great example when the person he’s talking to uses one as a comparison), and the idea that celebrities will get away with anything (even murder). It’s about executive caricatures populating a heightened reality to blur the line between exposé and puff piece.
There’s a time capsule aspect because it uses so many actors as themselves in the background doing what they did from Anjelica Huston and Jack Lemmon dining together two years after collaborating on The Grifters to Jack Lemmon playing the piano at a party to Cher wearing red at a black and white gala. Adapted by Michael Tolkin from his novel of the same name, The Player is Hollywood from an insider’s perspective that hasn’t been jaded by cynicism. Hail, Caesar! can be considered a contemporary sibling by how it honors an era of cinematic history without covering any warts. The shady dealings, aggressive tactics, and two-faced attitudes are part of Hollywood’s charm here. Removing them would be false and leaving them in doesn’t have to be derogatory.
The story itself deals with writers executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a man who hears close to 50,000 pitches a year despite only being able to greenlight twelve. As a result he has grown a thick skin and combative attitude, feeding prospective clients the line “I’ll get back to you” when he really means “There’s no way in Hell.” He’s surely pissed off more than one hopeful writer through the decades, so it’s not easy to figure out who is behind a slew of postcards being sent to his office with death threats on them. But now that studio chief Joel Levison (Brion James) is bringing another studio’s sales-executive onboard (Peter Gallagher‘s Larry Levy) to seemingly compete for his job, the paranoia has gotten the best of him.
So Griffin begins acting squirrelly and out of character (like letting Levy take a shot at a potential film idea from Richard E. Grant‘s Tom Oakley and Dean Stockwell‘s Andy Civella) while attempting to discern the source of his harassment. Could it be David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio)? Should he assume so without proof and act accordingly at risk of exacerbating the situation? What happens if Kahane turns up dead and his girlfriend June (Greta Scacchi) is seen on Griffin’s arm days later? How much can Detective Avery (Whoopi Goldberg) do against someone shielded from wrongdoing by money, fixers, and a mystique of fame? The rub is that the stranger he acts the better. For all anyone knows he’s just a harmless coke fiend without the stomach for homicide.
The plot’s rather straightforward in this way as Griffin battles personal demons and guilt while everyone but Avery refuses to believe he’s capable of such a crime. But while that’s simple, the choreography of scenes and subplots is pure Altman in extreme complexity. He’s meticulously detail-oriented whether it’s casting the right actors to play the right fictional roles in the movies within the movie (only Julia Roberts could be the tragic figure of a falsely accused killer and Bruce Willis must be the lead in every movie coming through the pipeline) or the right ones for the right fictional roles in the movie proper (Sydney Pollack as lawyer Dick Mellon, Cynthia Stevenson as Griffin’s script advisor and lover Bonnie Sherow, and Dina Merrill as Levison’s no-nonsense assistant).
Altman puts a microphone on everyone to hear Burt Reynolds bad mouth Griffin in the foreground before fading out so the latter is audible in the background; uses flashy buzzword tags on classic movie posters to foreshadow scenes as though they’re intertitles; and makes certain the sweeping camera captures Lyle Lovett‘s mysterious figure at least once during every public space-set situation. Our minds are forever racing to parse the insane level of information (pertinent and not) colliding with our eyes and ears so that paranoia grows in us just like it does Mill. And as though the technical prowess to achieve all this wasn’t enough, Altman delivers his own gorgeously orchestrated long-take introduction that peers through windows and onto parking spots of a studio in full zoo mode.
The acting’s superb whether the performance is fictitious or an exaggerated version of life and there are enough intricacies to warrant multiple viewings without worrying about boredom. We wonder if Griffin will keep his head above water and whether the one man with integrity (who doesn’t die) in Oakley will retain that sense of artistry once dollar signs infer upon the creative process. The Player is everything you love to hate about Hollywood in full splendor, making you jealous for a glitzy lifestyle you can only imagine in dream. Mill’s saga becomes the perfect fodder for a movie pitch in its own right and as a result provides a lot more knowing winks and not enough bite for my liking. But I cannot say I wasn’t thoroughly entertained.