The Player (1992) Directed by Robert Altman
Altman back on form? The Player felt so fresh when first released, it's been a while since I've seen it.
Yes, this is a cynical take on the Hollywood film industry, but it's also very slow, the laughs are slight and the film falls into spot-the-famous-actor -mode to compensate for the lack of interest on screen.
Movie exec Griffin Mill (a very good Tim Robbins) receives threatening postcards from an anonymous source. Amid increasing paranoia (systematic of Hollywood), Mill tracks down the rejected screenwriter, David (Vincent D'Onofrio), who he thinks is responsible for the postcards. The meeting turns to disaster when Mill inadvertently murders David. Mill then falls for David's widow June (Greta Scacchi) amid increasing speculation that Mill killed the writer. Of course the poison postcards don't stop. Will Mill find out who his tormentor is? Will he go down for David's murder?
In many ways Altman's black comedy is about power, position and the compromise needed to gain the power. It also sends out the message that in Hollywood you can get away with anything. There are great supporting roles for Lyle Lovett as a suspicious cop, with Whoopi Goldberg also strong as the detective leading the murder investigation.
All the boxes are ironically ticked for the ingredients needed to have a box office smash: sex, violence, more sex and violence, big movie stars and a happy ending. But Altman's film within a film scenario (and a dry run for Short Cuts), nowadays feels flat and falls short from Altman's own 70's high standards. But still, it's Altman, and the seediness on screen, you realize, Altman has prized from personal experience.
I think I like Robert Altman and his films. But actually what I've read about him and even some aloof quality in many of his films is distancing. Maybe he is not a nice guy. The Player certainly is saying that Hollywood is not a nice place. And people there are not sympathetic either.
Altman always juggles a huge cast. This time there are not many main characters, but the amount of cameos is overwhelming. It takes away from the story by inviting the audience to pay attention to every passing back on the lot because they are some well known actor. Altman is sneering at Hollywood while exploiting the star myth.
Tim Robbins is good as the producer who accidentally murders a script writer and gets away with it. Robbins is a pretty sympathetic actor in general and by casting him Altman adds some human warmness into the cold cold heart of Hollywood. Only very little, but it's harder to dismiss the whole film because of Robbins.
Griffin Mill, the producer (Robbins) not only murders the script writer, but falls for his wife and begins dating her immediately after the funeral. The wife is a strange emotionless blue painter. It remains unclear throughout why she is so expressionless and so ready to love the stranger who appears in her life on the evening of her husband's murder. This is where Altman's distance to his characters seems not to serve the film.
Whoopi Goldberg is funny (and light fun is rare here) as the detective who investigates the murder. If I ever end up at a police station, I hope she's there conducting my interview.