Could there ever be a realistic Hollywood? Perhaps a more pointed question is could anyone make a film that haphazardly finds that reality or even the dream of that reality? Robert Altman's The Player makes a bid of sorts by presenting the nightmare of the reality with a certain bite but nary a drop of venom, presumably unlike the rattlesnake that shows up on the floor of one character's car. Altman's Hollywood is generally courteous but also dismissive, demanding and very aware of the amount of money it is responsible for. And at the epicenter of this swirling storm is Griffin Mill, a studio executive, only a stone's throw away from the big job, who begins receiving threatening postcards from the author of one of thousands of banished screenplays that have passed over his desk.
Mill is a character, played by Tim Robbins, but he is one of only a handful of recognizable faces in Altman's Hollywood that is recognizably a creation. Stars and personalities float in and out of Altman's camera, occasionally stopping to talk shop or deliver a message, but they inhabit a gray area between the "reality" of Hollywood and a mélange of inside jokes, rumors, and exaggerations. At one point, Cher arrives at a black-and-white dress party wearing a screaming red dress; Malcolm McDowell warns Mill to not talk behind his back, next time. They are figures, characters and themselves all at once, a notion best exemplified by rushes from a film noir starring Lily Tomlin and Scott Glenn that Mill screens.
Mill doesn't quite live up to the horror-show exec that we have been told lurks through the studios, crushing dreams with the twist of his Cartier cufflinks, but he certainly personifies that myth to David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), a bitter screenwriter who Mill believes is the sender of the demise-promising postcards. Late one night, Mill decides to confront Kahane following a screening of De Sica's The Bicycle Thieves at Pasadena's Rialto Theater, the results of which climax with Mill drowning Kahane in a puddle of mucky water. An investigation is launched by a detective (Whoopi Goldberg), but Mill is equally busy holding off the advancing career of a rival (Peter Gallagher), tending to a budding romance with Kahane's ex-girlfriend (Greta Scacchi), and shepherding a new project with a pestering producer (Dean Stockwell) and a hack director (Richard E. Grant).
The Player exists both as a condemnation and a celebration of the dreamlife of Hollywood in that most of its characters are unlikable or, at the very least, empathize with duplicitous, immoral behavior, while the film itself happily indulges in the same tropes that are understood by Mill and his compatriots as key to a fiscally successful Hollywood film. The realities of Mill's crime are largely ignored to make way for his odd romance and a hefty portioning of celebrity sightings and industry jargon are essential to Altman's sardonic detachment. But even if, as Altman has stated, parts of the film are influenced by the director's own dealings in Tinsel Town, nothing in The Player registers as personal or, for that matter, scathing. An opposing view would certainly argue that this was intentional, that the patented leisurely tone and wavering sense of focus serve to reinforce the director's "very modest satire" rather than elevate him out of its orbit of corruption. That's certainly a possibility, but even exempting these facets, The Player's basic intrigue is derived more from Altman's stylistic choices than from any crumb of insight into the world the director had made his living in since the 1950s, counting his television work.
Adapted by Michael Tolkin from his own novel of the same name, The Player nevertheless remains a curious contraption, a somewhat goofy, well-acted, and completely entertaining experiment that, for no apparent reason, has been placed by numerous critics next to Altman's genuine triumphs (Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts). It's a hoot to watch Alan Rudolph pitch "Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate," and there are few jokes better than the slogan that hangs above the nameless studio where Mill works: "Movies: Now, More Than Ever." But no one member of the industry is shown as even slightly as calculating and uncaring as Mill, suggesting that though everyone buys into the business, the execs are especially flushed with a cruel euphoria when the sureness of capitalism overrides the risk of art. And it's perhaps this inability to admit the ubiquity of the corruption and money-minded decisions in Hollywood that makes a movie about big-studio politics hard to pull off. Often enough, as is true of The Player, these films evoke fascination in fits and spurts but are ultimately just another funny, edgy, and suspenseful dramatic thriller…with heart.
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The 1080p transfer that Warner Bros. has afforded The Player is inarguably grainy, but this has more to do with the film stock than the transfer. In fact, the image has been given added definition and color in comparison to the splotchy, muddied DVD transfer. Black levels are solid, as are flesh tones, and there's a great deal of depth to the image. The Blu-ray also features a strong lossless DTS-HD Master 5.1 treatment that picks up all the overflowing, scattered conversations in Altman's Hollywood and holds up well in more atmospheric scenes, such as a trip to a hot springs in the California desert. As would befit Altman, it's not a show-off affair, but it does right by the film.
The commentary, with Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin, is a bit laborious but not without its moments of fascination. Far more interesting is the 16-minute featurette "One on One with Robert Altman," where the master discusses a handful of scenes he left out as well as some tidbits about improvising on the set and incorporating situations from his life in pictures into the film. This is also that rare case where many of the deleted scenes do add a certain layer to the film; some of them would have been well worth keeping. The theatrical trailer is also included.
Robert Altman's over-praised yet highly enjoyable skewering of the business of making movies arrives on Blu-ray in a befittingly humble and loving audio and visual transfer.