Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Tim Robbins, Greta
Scacchi, Fred Ward, Vincent D'Onofrio, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion
James, Cynthia Stevenson, Lyle Lovett
Director: Robert Altman
Audio: DTS HD 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 124 Minutes
Release Date: May 24, 2016
“I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here.”
I have to confess a cardinal sin here, for a film reviewer...I don't consider myself a fan of Robert Altman.
While most critics have seemed to climb over each other over the years to be the one to write the words of praise that would eventually adorn his movie posters, I've been quietly on the other side of the fence. Many writers think Altman delivered a career full of masterpieces, with an occasional miscue. My take was the opposite...most of his films are complete messes that looked like the inmates were running the asylum with no supervision, and he just managed by happenstance to stumble into three truly great films.
Now that I've said that, let me switch gears and say: The Player is definitely a masterpiece, and one of those three. It came at a time when Altman was almost in exile from Hollywood for a number of years, and it came where he was almost a director for hire rather than the auteur of the project, and it came when he was really trying to make another film that he was more passionate about.
But still, it was the right material for the right director, who clearly had his reasons for viewing the Hollywood system with a bit of cynicism. The Player, as a result, became both a celebrated film and a thorn in the side of the studio system, who had to view Altman as biting the hands that fed him.
But it's that sense of unashamed and amused cynicism that gives this picture it's soul. It has a plot, but it's all about the silliness and pomposity of Hollywood filmmaking, where real artists happily sell their ideals out for a bigger piece of the box office, and where soulless executives dictate what you and I see, and market to lowest common denominators for larger returns.
Such an executive is Griffin Mill (Robbins, in a real breakthrough performance). His job is to greenlight the projects his studio will eventually turn into films, but really, his job is not to say yes a few times a year, but to say no thousands of times a year.
And things aren't well...one writer among the many he dismissed has started harassing him with postcards, and the threats are getting a little closer and more dangerous. Making matters worse, a new hot young executive (Gallagher) has arrived on the lot, with an eye for Griffin's job. The last thing he needs is a bit of controversy to make that easier. Or to be killed...I supposed that wouldn't help his career either.
Griffin thinks he identifies the writer responsible in David Kahane (D'Onofrio), and arranges a confrontation after speaking briefly to David's attractive artist girlfriend June (Scacchi). But it goes wrong. David ends up dead...and being a murderer definitely complicates Griffin's efforts to keep his job...especially when he begins to fall for June.
Most of the film runs through a playground of Hollywood, with dozens of celebrity cameos adding to the mirth, and two great plots involving Griffin: one, trying to stay out of jail, and two, trying to sabotage his new rival with an outrageous pitch for a depressing movie with no stars.
By the time all is said in done, the one person in the film who stood for truth and integrity is the one left in ruins. Sad? Of course, but in keeping with the movie's cynicism, you realize anyone in Hollywood who keeps their soul will lose everything else. Plus it's part of a large finale that includes the final screening of Griffin's “art film”, and a perfect wrap-up with the postcard writer.
The ending is only matched by the opening; one of the best long, uncut tracking shots of all time, that focuses on one group and another, establishing the characters and the feel...while ironically, a pair of characters discuss movie opening shots, citing Orson Welles' unbroken opening for Touch of Evil. It's clear Altman was paying homage to these shots while determining to surpass them, and he did. Later openings like Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights owe a little something to what Altman crafted here.
It's big, but unlike the majority of Altman's works, this one never loses focus or feels like chaos run amuck. The success of this film would give him the chance to eventually make Short Cuts, his dream project (and to me, another indulgent mess), but it also meant Altman would continue to work until his passing.
To me, his career apexed with The Player. It remains an all-time favorite movie of mine, and possibly the one I would pick, even over Nashville and M*A*S*H as the movie I would show someone in order to introduce them to what Altman could be those rare times when he really WAS at his best.
This film is starting to show it's age a little bit. This 4K presentation from Criterion is still quite good, but colors are getting just a tad muted and overall detail levels just a bit soft. Still, no compression or artifacting is evident.
Criterion delivers an uncompressed version of the original 2 channel surround (stereo front, one signal to the rear), and it works fine. Dialogue, though sometimes overlapping, is still clean and clear, though by nature, dynamic range here is minimal.
The extras include the original 1992 commentary from Altman, plus a new featurette with new cast and writer interviews, a 1992 Cannes press conference, a short bit about the filming of the fundraising scene, a gallery of the cameo appearances, deleted scenes and outtakes, and the opening shot with commentary, plus some trailers and TV spots.
The Player is a bold, ambitious, funny masterpiece from Robert Altman, and if you've never seen it, you really need to check out this Criterion Blu-ray for a unique experience!