Making movies can be murder.
The Player is intelligent, well-written, and…odd. It’s also thoroughly enjoyable, and shows the quality that New Line puts into their DVD production.
We all know that Hollywood is a backstabbing, conniving, soulless, heartless, and often brainless place. To state any of the preceding is like walking up to Karl Malone and saying, “Dude, you sure are tall.” So what can a movie say about Hollywood that we don’t already know? Maybe that movie producers can get away with murder — literally.
The Player revolves around a studio executive, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins, Nothing To Lose, The Shawshank Redemption) receives over one hundred phone calls a day. He hears countless movie pitches, and is responsible for filtering out the twelve movie ideas that his studio will turn into features every year. I got the impression that he was a nice guy, but his job often required him to be a jerk.
He starts receiving threatening post cards and faxes from a writer who he told he would call back and never did. Griffin consults his records, and tracks down the name of writer David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio, Strange Days, Full Metal Jacket). Griffin drives his Range Rover out to the man’s house. He stands outside and rings him up on his cell phone. Kahane isn’t home, but the man’s girlfriend June (Greta Scacchi, The Red Violin, Presumed Innocent) answers. June points Griffin to the movie theatre where Kahane has gone to spend his evening. Griffin meets Kahane outside the theatre. They retreat to a nearby bar, where Griffin tells the writer that he’ll make a deal with him (remember, Griffin thinks he’s being threatened by this guy). Kahane wants nothing to do with the studio suit who has spurned him for so long, and storms out.
Griffin leaves a few minutes later, but has the misfortune of running into Kahane again. They get into an argument. Kahane pushes Griffin; Griffin pummels Kahane to unconsciousness and leaves him in a puddle. When he returns a moment later, the man has drowned. Griffin panics, and tries to cover up his crime. He goes to work the next day like nothing happened. He receives another postcard…he killed the wrong writer.
That’s just the setup for The Player. What makes the movie so unusual is that it doesn’t stick strictly to that premise. A lesser movie by a lesser director may have been content to make The Player into a murder mystery thriller, or a neo-noir picture, or just a straight Hollywood satire (like Fox’s dismally bad pseudo-sitcom “Action“). The Player alternates between each concept without missing a beat.
Robert Altman directed The Player. He earned his first directing credit in 1951. He’s best known for making decidedly un-Hollywood films like M*A*S*H (how many of you remember that the theme song was named “Suicide Is Painless”?), Nashville, and Short Cuts. He received an Academy Award nomination for his directing efforts, but the 1993 Oscars were the year of Clint Eastwood, who won for directing Unforgiven.
Tim Robbins gives a typically stellar performance. It’s hard to look at him and think that he could be a murderer — he just looks too nice. There’s not a bad note among the cast. Notable are Peter Gallagher (While You Were Sleeping) as a rival producer, Brion James (The Fifth Element) as Griffin’s boss, and Dean Stockwell (Air Force One) as an agent pitching a hopeless script.
New Line released the DVD of The Player in 1997. The three years since its release have brought major advancements to DVD releases. But guess what? This disc could have been released yesterday. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I could not detect any digital artifacts, though the fussy folks at “Widescreen Review” took issue with it. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. My setup does not allow to specifically comment on the surround mix. You can expect the film to be mostly dialogue-centric. I have a slight beef with the extras, but it can be chalked up to the vintage of the disc. Included are five deleted scenes, production notes, the theatrical trailer, a sixteen-minute interview with Altman, a guide to the celebrity cameos (and there’s about fifty or so), and a commentary track by Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin. Whew, quite a batch. Only problem? Well, back in 1997 not many dual-layered discs were made, so you have to flip the disc over to see the trailer, the interview, and the deleted scenes.
The Player won’t satisfy all tastes. Those that are expecting conventional Hollywood fare will be disappointed. A lot of the humor relies on the audience’s knowledge of movies and some notion of what would go on behind the scenes at a studio. Like most Woody Allen films, I can see much of this being lost on most rural audiences.
I would definitely recommend The Player as a rental. It’s also feature-packed and worthy enough of repeat viewings to warrant a purchase.