Sunday 8 July 2012

Movie Review: The Player (1992)

An acute satire of Hollywood, Robert Altman's The Player is a formidable movie that manages to poke fun at everything related to the business of making films. With an ensemble cast and a long list of stars making cameos, The Player can distract itself somewhat with a game of spot the celebrity, but Altman maintains a firm grip to a biting conclusion.

Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) spends his days listening to pitches, trying to find the small percent of ideas that can be turned into successful movies. Griffin has two main problems. He is being threatened with severe bodily harm by a mysterious disgruntled writer who claims to have been disrespected; while competing executive Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) appears to be making a power move to displace Griffin's position of authority within the studio.

Griffin does some research and concludes that struggling writer David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) is behind the threats, and he contrives a meeting with Kahane's girlfriend, artist June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi). The subsequent encounter between Griffin and David to clear the air has a horrible ending, landing Griffin in a lot more trouble and at the centre of a police investigation headed by Detective Avery (Whoopi Goldberg). The studio's head of security Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) has to swing into action to protect crumbling reputations, while Griffin pursues June at the expense of former girlfriend Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson). Meanwhile, Griffin and Larry vie for control of the next hot script making the Hollywood rounds.

Altman open The Player with a fluid, continuous shot lasting 7 minutes and 47 seconds, introducing the key characters, establishing the studio's labyrinthine relationships, paying homage to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, and throwing in the opening few salvos of satire. It's Altman's announcement that he will celebrate Hollywood while making fun of it, and it sets the context for what follows.

The rest of The Player contains many of the elements that often need to be checked off to make a Hollywood success: tension, mystery, confrontation, death, investigation, betrayal, lust, and political manoeuvring. Altman throws in some brief nudity to make the point, and concludes The Player with a devastating jab of ridicule to emphasize how quickly Hollywood turns supposed art into crass commerce. In a final act of jocular defiance, Altman also bends one of filmdom's golden rules, allowing a character who has sinned to escape unscathed.

Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill struts around Hollywood in oversized suits, a young man with amplified confidence, huge responsibilities and larger pay cheques, wielding influence and power way beyond his years. With a high profile, Mill is an obviously tempting target, and his success is a lightning rod attracting external and internal challenges. Robbins wears it all with a sense of quiet manipulation, never questioning his abilities but acutely aware that his entire life is a tightrope walk.

Greta Scacchi misses another chance at stardom, Altman giving her every opportunity, bathing her in white and setting her up as an attractive conquest for Griffin. Scacchi is merely adequate, unable to transform the role into anything more than the stock love interest.

The rest of the cast members perform a tight orbit around Mills' character, Peter Gallagher, Whoopi Goldberg, Vincent D'Onofrio and Fred Ward doing just enough to differentiate themselves from the 62 other Hollywood and entertainment notables listed as having performed a cameo.

Artistically, creatively and surreptitiously, there is always something going on as The Player gingerly picks his way through the perils of Hollywood. It's a unique world, and Altman captures it with a flourish.

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