Robert Altman is the undisputed champion of multiple characters. No other filmmaker in history even comes close to juggling so many characters, and extracting so much personality from each one. Every Robert Altman film is akin to watching a perfectly devised kaleidoscope of unique motivations, behaviors, and character traits.
Altman opens the film with a virtuosic tracking shot to rival Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” in which characters reference the cinematic technique. This is sly stuff. The movie could have been called “Hollywood Eats Itself.”
So it is in “The Player” (released in 1992) that Altman roasts the Hollywood system with loving authority. The story revolves around a Hollywood studio whose insipid motto is “Movies Now More Than Ever.”
You couldn’t ask for a more rollicking black comedy. Michael Tolkin’s screenplay (based on his own novel) gives Altman all the narrative ammunition he needs to take trick shots at Hollywood’s kneejerk money-pandering system that [currently] trades exclusively in superheroes and sequels.
Tim Robbins is perfectly cast as Griffin Mill, a slick Hollywood studio producer and narcissistic sociopath if ever there was. He’s in danger of losing his embarrassingly high-paying job to Peter Gallagher’s up-and-comer Larry Levy. He has other problems too.
Griffin gets pitched thousands of movie ideas every year. Of the 50,000 scripts that get submitted, only 12 get made into films. He makes 125 phone calls a day. If that number drops to 100 Griffin isn’t doing his job, which obviously requires him to say ‘no’ a lot. Making enemies comes with the territory. A rejected writer sends Griffin a stream of angry postcards that escalate into a direct death threat against the studio vice president.
Griffin is understandably rattled, but thinks he can resolve the matter by tracking down the menacing screenwriter (a man named David Kahane — played by Vincent D’Onofrio) and promising to give his script a shot. However, things don’t go as planned after Griffin discovers Kahane’s location from the writer’s artistically inclined girlfriend. Naturally, Kahane is in Pasadena for a screening of Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief.”
Here is a film-lovers’ movie that serves as a hilarious time capsule of early ‘90s Hollywood culture of conspicuous consumption. Garish ties, pastel-colored shirts, and double-breasted suits proliferate smoggy Los Angeles. The movie also serves as a who’s who of the era’s celebrities. It seems like every actor living in L.A. is in the movie. I’m certain there isn’t another movie in the history of Hollywood with more cameos. Everyone from Burt Reynolds, Rod Steiger, Lily Tomlin, and Bruce Willis to Julia Roberts, Gary Busey, Cher, and John Cusack show up on screen. The supporting cast is even more impressive. Richard E. Grant, Peter Gallagher, Lyle Lovett, Gina Gershon, and Fred Ward each make indelible impressions.
“The Player” was an instant classic when it was released, and it stands up to close scrutiny. There’s a dark joy in the film that is just so much fun to revel in. Robert Altman was a trenchant satirist of American culture, and a truly gifted storyteller. Both traits are on full display here.
Rated R. 124 mins. (A+) (Five Stars — out of five / no halves.