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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: The Player (1992)

* * * 1/2
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Tim Robbins

It has been said that no one ever sets out to make a bad movie. That may be true but, in terms of studio films at least, it's probably more accurate to say that nobody sets out to make a profitless film - even if to make a profit means to excise all those elements that drew you to the project in the first place. Robert Altman's The Player is about the people who sacrifice quality for the sake of commercial appeal - a subject dear to Altman's heart, given that his films were often high in quality but low in profit. It's also a darkly funny little murder story and features one of Tim Robbins' best performances.

Robbins stars as Griffin Mill, a studio executive who spends his days hearing pitches from screenwriters and deciding which projects will get the greenlight. He's on edge as the film begins due to the ascendancy of fellow executive Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), whose success threatens his own job security because, like Highlander, there can only be one. Soon Griffin is receiving death threats and comes to believe that they're courtesy of a rejected screenwriter. After a bit of sleuthing he determines that the culprit is David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) and seeks him out, getting into a confrontation that ends with Kahane's death.

After making the murder look like a robbery gone wrong, Mill struggles to keep one step ahead of the law (in the form of Whoopie Goldberg and Lyle Lovett) while receiving further notes from his stalker and also finding himself drawn to Kahane's girlfriend, June (Greta Scacchi). Mill also finds time to engineer a plot to keep Levy from usurping him by talking Levy into taking on a film with limited commercial appeal so that Mill can step in at the last minute to make the changes that will transform it into a more commercially viable picture.

At the time of its release The Player marked a return for Altman from the cinematic wilderness that was the 1980s. The 70s saw the release of some of his most accomplished and revered worked (MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nasvhille, released between 1970 and 1975, could all fit comfortably in any "best of all time" list), while his most notable film from the 80s is the critically dismissed Popeye. With The Player he leaped back into critical good graces and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director (the film would also be nominated for Best Editing and Adapted Screenplay - shockingly, Robbins was left out of the Best Actor race).

What's surprising about The Player is how stylistically restrained it feels. Altman's films are known for their sprawling casts and multiple plot threads which come together to form the cinematic equivalent of a photo mosaic. Compared to films like, for example, Nashville or Shortcuts, The Player is fairly straight forward, a film with a clear protagonist and one plot, a film that would seem conventional were it not for the fact that most films that purport to pull back the veil on Hollywood aren't nearly this good or this dark. The Player is a sharp satire that doesn't pull its punches and which effectively mixes dark, noirish elements with flat out comedy, sometimes within the same scene. Although I don't think it quite reaches the level of his masterpieces (and, really, any director who can be said to have masterpieces can be forgiven for falling just a bit short sometimes), it's certainly a very good movie and, arguably, one of Altman's most accessible pieces.

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