The Player (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a movie studio executive, has received seven threatening postcards in two weeks and he has reason to believe that they are being sent by a writer with whom he promised to get back to but never did. Griffin has too much on his plate: there is word going around that Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is out for his position, too many writers are pitching terrible ideas in his office, and his superiors consistently put on the pressure–though in an off-handed way. Everyone wants a piece of his time that his job has turned into a sickness. He needs a solution real quick and the strand that he thinks he has control over is finding the man with the postcards.
Though the setting takes place in the star-studded underworld that is Hollywood, with the satirical punch to boot, “The Player,” based on the novel of the same name by Michael Tolkin, is most compelling during its simple moments of the studio executive, superbly played by Robbins, expressing to another through words or actions how his occupation has inevitably shaped him into a person he might not necessarily like. Because the lead character is allowed by the script to express his inner machinations without asking us to pity him, almost everything else that unravels around him fascinates.
The story involves a murder and Griffin is a suspect. We know whether this man is innocent or guilty and yet there is tension because, killer or not, the screenplay does not lose track of his humanity. For instance, I think that people who are under a lot of stress can look at Griffin and say to themselves, “I know how that feels like.” Notice that we never see Griffin at home. We never learn his hobbies or see what he likes to do on weekends. As much as it is a satire of people who green light movies, it works as a cautionary tale. It is a story of a workaholic in mental shambles.
Robert Altman, the director, is very confident behind the camera. There are jokes about long tracking shots in classic movies, especially early on in the picture, and it is amusing that the tracking shots in this film are very noticeable but never distracting. The technique enhances a handful of scenes especially when the camera starts off very far from the people of interest engaged in conversation and slowly zooming in on them. We get a sense that we are paparazzi in Hollywood and we want that perfect shot of celebrities sitting in an outdoor restaurant, eating lunch, and talking business.
Whoopi Goldberg who plays one of the detectives investigating the murder does not get enough screen time. She is such a ray of sunshine because she plays her character almost like a Venus flytrap. She reels us in with her easygoing personality and the moment we get too close, we realize how Detective Avery got to where she is. I wished she was given more to do because she is the most interesting character next to our protagonist.
The cameos did not make much impression on me because many of the people in the business back then, the early nineties, are not necessarily in the business now (or not as visible). Still, I caught myself smiling at the sight of big names like Jeff Goldblum, Nick Nolte, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell, and Malcolm McDowell—including a joke that involves the last two.
“The Player” is a picture that demands to be seen more than once not only for the hidden jokes in the dialogue, the strength of Robbins’ performance, or the cameos, but also in the way the camera moves so freely and yet in control. These days, many movies do not move the camera that it verges on boredom or shakes so unrelentingly that it induces migraines. This film offers a happy, creative medium.