Retrospective: The Player (1992)

Harry Riedl is a film enthusiast from West London and this continues a series of reviews on his favourite cult classics.
I wanted to a review movie by  Director Robert Altman for a while, but it took some time to figure out which would be best to write. The Player is his best known film due to its vicious attack on the Hollywood movie system; in particular the role studios have in creating movies. At its core it has two very important messages: what qualifies a movie as art and secondly, should a writer keep a desired story line pure or should it be changed due to the wishes of the audience?

The movie was made in the early 90s but it’s still very important in showing the disconnect between the more financially sound, big budget movies and more artistically pure indie films. It essentially makes an absolute tosser of a character interesting and sympathetic, which is quite an achievement. He admits as much himself that he’s a deeply unpleasant character but explains how his job makes lots of people unhappy: ‘I get 50,000 scripts each year and the studio can only make 12’. This limited amount of production means lots of unhappy writers, causing his continual refrain to be ‘speak to me about this tomorrow, I’ll get back to you’.

The plot’s core revolves around Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a script executive at a relatively small studio who is being pushed out by a young gun from Fox studios, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). Mill decides to confront a young writer who he suspects is sending him threatening messages and attempts to pay him off in a bar which the writer refuses, causing a confrontation which ends up with Griffin drowning the writer in a puddle and then making it look like a robbery gone wrong. After this unpleasant experience he has to deal with the internal politics of the studio while trying to figure out who is  sending him letters and increasingly dangerous ‘presents’. What’s so very nice about this movie is how star struck the police seem. They are not incompetent but are instead largely in awe when interrogating Griffin even though they suspect him but can’t prove it.

Robert Altman shows great skill as a director in creating many overlapping conversations which are completely plausible by weaving a massive cast, including a load of Hollywood actors playing themselves: everyone from Jeff Goldblum to Cher. He is very successful in creating a genuine feel for a place. Going into the crowd scenes feels like going to a party, which is a really rare achievement. The importance of the industry sinking to the bottom line is continually brought up and shows how fear of failure and bad reactions by test audiences creates bland rubbish, but since everyone is suffering from groupthink the studio executives don’t seem to understand this and instead create something that sells but is not artistic.

What makes Altman movies worth watching alongside other great directors of the same period like Francis Ford Coppola is that he has a rare grip on disturbing scripts which thrum with tension while keeping a massive cast and plot together in a tight embrace. The Godfather is the closest to achieve this but it’s got one good sequel and one that’s not so good, plus it’s longer than the universe. Seeing this movie you can understand why studios jump on any bandwagon to reach the bottom line and why everyone is making second or third rate 3D movies after Avatar and then they wonder why small indie movies are often beating them at the box office? What should also be mentioned is the absolute contempt they have for those working in TV and its interesting seeing 17 years later how high end TV dramas have have become such a notable, intelligent art form: anything from The Wire to Mad Men to The Sopranos.

The Player is not the easiest of Altman’s movies to ‘get’ the first time round but it rewards effort and if you appreciate smart dialogue and interesting plots then you’ll find it extremely satisfying.


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