Judge Gordon Sullivan thought this would be a jai alai drama.
"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."—Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins)
In his commentary to The Player, director Robert Altman describes why he and Hollywood don't get along. He says he's in the business of making movies, and Hollywood is in the business of selling them. The problem is that Hollywood doesn't know how to sell the kind of films that Altman makes. This rift really started with the double flop of Popeye and Come Back the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and that lead to a decade of obscurity for the once-mighty director. He spent time teaching, making much smaller movies, working in TV and video, but nothing he did really capture the mass attention he'd gained with films like M*A*S*H or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Then, the Nineties dawned and he was offered a work-for-hire gig directing a Hollywood satire, The Player. While the material could have lent itself to a taut noir like Chinatown or Body Heat, Altman instead put his own stamp on the production, adding The Player to the long list of ensemble dramas the director is known for. After a decent Platinum Series DVD release, The Player is getting a hi-def upgrade that lets the film shine, but probably won't tempt anyone to upgrade.
Facts of the Case
Griffin Mills (Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption) is a successful producer, but like all Hollywood producers, he's always looking over his shoulder for the next big thing that could run him over. He thinks he's spotted the competition in up-and-comer Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher, Californication), but Griffin has something bigger on his mind: someone has been leaving threatening postcards. It seems that Griffin has ignored one of the constant stream of writers pitching stories to him. After a little investigating, Griffin thinks he's identified the writer he spurned as David Kehane (Vincent D'Onofrio, The Salton Sea). When he goes to confront Kahane (after a screening of Bicycle Thieves) things go sideways and Griffin ends up killing Kahane. Worse, he hasn't stopped the writer sending those threatening postcards. With his world falling apart, Griffin has to fend off advances from Levy, the police, and this mysterious writer threatening his life.
Those even passingly familiar with Altman's more famous films—from the earlier Nashville to the later Gosford Park—will instantly recognize The Player. Opening with a reel-long single take that introduces the audience to the world of Griffin Mills' Hollywood, the film is an ensemble production from the beginning. The trademark bright lighting, mobile camera, and overlapping sound are all present to varying degrees. The plot also has Altman's fingerprints all over it, even though he didn't write the screenplay. His brighter, looser atmosphere and pacing contrast the darkness of the material in compelling ways.
Altman, though, really deserves credit for getting a whole mess of great actors together and letting them do their thing in front of a camera. Tim Robbins wouldn't get his Oscar until Mystic River, but he showed that potential in his anchoring role here as Griffin Mill. Robbins has to transform from a slightly-sleazy but generally okay Hollywood producer into a killer who has to hide his guilt. It's amazing to watch, and the rest of the cast work to support this central performance. Speaking of the rest of the cast, pretty much every face in the frame is one that film-fans will recognize. Because Altman is a respected director, he called in favors and friends to work for scale so the film happens as much in a real Hollywood as possible. Instead of inventing characters and having actors play them, most of the "actors" mentioned in the film are real people, played by themselves (like Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts). Other characters are also played by recognizable faces, like Vincent D'Onofrio, Whoopi Goldberg, and Dean Stockwell. My personal favorite is Richard E. Grant as a pretentious director with a pitch for Griffin. Finally, we get numerous cameos, including a brilliant turn by Malcolm McDowell.
This Blu-ray is basically a retread of the Platinum Series DVD from over a decade ago. The VC-1 encoded transfer is generally pretty strong. During most scenes there's a pleasing sense of grain, decent details, and a bright, natural look to the image. The problems tend to occur in darker scenes, where the grain turns noisy, which can be a bit distracting. It's not a bad transfer, but it's not a great one either. The DTS-HD audio, though, is where this disc shines. Altman is a huge fan of overlapping dialogue, and this surround track brings all those voices into almost total clarity. Individuals are distinct, and the balance between music, dialogue, and effects is spot-on.
The extras start with a commentary featuring Altman and writer (of both novel and screenplay) Michael Tolkin. Recorded separately, the two address the film's origins in the novel, how the various actors got involved, what shooting was like, and some of Altman's other films. There are a few too many gaps to make it a perfect commentary, but it's great to hear to very different takes on a great movie. We also get a 16-minute "one-on-one" with Altman and a collection of deleted scenes. The film's trailer is also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Player is a fun movie, one that tweaks Hollywood's nose while also showing some love for the dream factory. However, those who aren't into Altman's sometimes over-extended narratives or his refusal to point the viewer at exactly what's important in the frame or the story will find The Player trying. Also, those looking for a truly vicious satire of Hollywood will be disappointed. Altman's having fun, but he keeps the kid gloves on.
The Player is far from Altman's masterpiece, but it's head and shoulders above his more spectacular failures. Those who have any interest in Hollywood or film history should probably see The Player, and this Blu-ray is an excellent way to do that. However, if you've already got the Platinum Series DVD (or the laserdisc!) there's not much here to tempt an upgrade. Certainly the video and audio are better, but unless flipping that old disc is really bugging you, this disc is probably only worth a rental the next time you want to see the film.
Griffin Mills may have committed a crime, but The Player is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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