Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Player (1992)

Director: Robert Altman                                     Writer: Michael Tolkin
Film Score: Thomas Newman                            Cinematography: Jean Lépine
Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward and Vincent D’Onofrio

The Player is one of those films that was critically acclaimed upon its release, but hasn’t worn well over the years. Much of what was exciting and new about the film is rather blasé now. Robert Altman, who has a huge reputation among fans and critics, has usually left me cold. Other than M*A*S*H, most of his films have a certain sterility that, while the actors seem to be trying incredibly hard, doesn’t seem to bring any real life to his stories. This film seems to be something of a throwback to the pre-code era of the early nineteen thirties where the killer gets away with it. The clever part of it, however, is the fact that the killer is a movie executive, the conceit of the film being that Hollywood is a world unto itself and that those people can get away with anything. As always in Altman’s world, it’s a strange mixture of regular people and bizarre eccentrics.

The film begins with Tim Robbins as a cutthroat executive who hears thousands of proposals a year for films and must select only a few to greenlight. He’s dating story editor Cynthia Stevenson and they have a busy but predictable relationship, living the L.A. lifestyle but hardly seeming to enjoy it. Two things are happening, though, that are disturbing Robbins’ concentration. The first is that hot shot Peter Gallagher is seemingly aiming for his position and turning the head of studio boss Brion James. The second is that he is receiving anonymous death threats from a writer that he assumes is Vincent D’Onofrio. He goes to the writer’s house and calls him up but winds up talking to his girlfriend, Greta Scacchi, while watching her through the window as she tells Robbins that he’s at the movies. So he goes to the theater and after an altercation in the parking lot of a bar next door, Robbins kills D’Onofrio. He has seemingly gotten away with it and begins to relax, that is until he receives another note saying he killed the wrong writer.

Though Altman is trying for a bit of neo-noir here, and to give him credit he did direct a seventies version of The Long Goodbye, he doesn’t manage to pull it off. For one thing the L.A. setting, which is obviously meant to be ironic, diminishes the impact of the danger that Robbins feels himself under. He’s questioned by the cops, an incongruous team of Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett, and while they are a minor menace they lack the kind of threat that it seems Altman was going for. By far the most tedious part of the film, however, is the relationship of Scacchi and Robbins. She’s an unconventional artist who seems no more concerned that her boyfriend is dead than if she’d received a parking ticket. And the way Robbins becomes obsessed with her is, while mildly ironic, not very interesting. What is good is the ending, or rather the lead up to the ending. Here Robbins figures out a way to derail not only Gallagher but James in the process. It’s also the funniest moment in the film as well.

The film was a critical and commercial success, receiving Academy Awards nominations for best director and best screenplay for Michael Tolkin’s adaptation of his novel. Altman was undoubtedly drawn to Tolkin’s novel because of the negative way that it portrayed the Hollywood studio system of the day. He had butted heads with studio executives ever since the early seventies and wound up working out side the system for the rest of his career. Portraying studio types as being able to get away with murder must have seemed more like non-fiction to him. The film also features loads of cameo appearances by everyone that Altman could muster for party and restaurant scenes, from Sydney Pollack to Anjelica Huston. It’s not a bad film, per se, and there are some nice touches, particularly the eight-minute opening sequence without a cut. But in the grand scheme of things, like the eighties films that preceded it by only a couple of years, The Player feels dated now and something of a disappointment because of it.

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