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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: The Player (1992)

The Player marked a blistering return to form for cinematic titan Robert Altman, reminding people why he was and still is one of the most important auteurs the medium has ever produced. A strikingly original, funny and damning portrayal of Hollywood is still unique and as relevant as ever in 2021 as it was back in 1992.

Tim Robbins plays the protagonist Griffin Mill, a hotshot studio executive who determines which ideas get made into films, which ones need work and which ones go into the endless pile of rejected screenplays. He is the epitome of the clichéd studio exec; kissing up to the right people, two-faced and ruthless. Things, however, have been getting a tad stressful for Griffin. A new executive at the studio threatens his relevancy at the studio as well as receiving death threats in the form of postcards from an angry writer. Not only does Griffin have to fight to keep his role at the studio, he also has to find this furious, rejected writer before things get out of hand. Unfortunately for Griffin, they do, but thankfully for us, it lets The Player go from being a standard piece of satirical comedy to becoming a genre-jumping spectacular that is among the best films of the 90s and of Altman’s illustrious career.

The Player is championed by an incredibly complex and sharp script adapted by the same author of the book, Michael Tolkin. It’s a story that is clearly meant more for the big screen than the page, providing moments of meta genius through plot developments, dialogue and a cheeky sense of self-awareness that pushes and prods the film to arguably the most meta of meta finales we have seen in a film to date (with the exception of Adaptation maybe). The Player wisely sticks to tropes and rules set up by the genres and styles it finds itself continuously jumping between, finally giving itself permission to break free from the restrictions set by them. This allows for The Player to earn its right to be completely self-aware of its place in the world of Hollywood, completely subverting the banality big Hollywood studios are so dead-set on leaving unchanged.

These set-ups make for Altman to be the most perfectly appropriate and adept filmmaker to take this on. One of the truly great American filmmakers, Robert Altman was as original as they got. In order to break the rules, one must know the rules first, this is exactly what made Altman so revolutionary in the films he made, adding unique new touches on tired genres. Black Comedy, Film Noir, Mystery, Thriller, Crime…these are all genres with which Altman was highly familiar with. Loads of classic and obscure noir film posters are cleverly framed in specific scenes, giving a hint as to where proceedings may be heading according to the films on display. This again is where Altman shows his ability to surprise and challenge us, guiding us down an obvious path before quickly tugging us in a completely unexpected direction; it’s cinematic sleight of hand at its finest.

One of the crowning technical achievements in Altman’s career is The Player’s opening scene. It's an intricate eight-and-a-half minute single shot - making use of zooms, tracks, and cranes to pull off a highly important sequence that sets up the world of a Hollywood Studio plot so cleverly. In these subsequent moments, Altman creates a world fluent in a specific pace and language, as well as fooling us into thinking what kind of a film this will be. The level of self-awareness here is a wet dream for film buffs as well, with characters making references to the great long shots in movies, most notably that of Touch of Evil’s famous opening sequence, all while taking place in an impossibly choreographed and lengthy single shot. It makes for an extremely satisfying journey in the morning of these Hollywood execs as they talk shop, movies and listen to pitches from writers. The language of Tolkin’s script is so quintessentially Altman as well, and the fact that they poke fun at this over the course of the film through dialogue and shot choices makes it a wonderful inside joke with both the filmmaker and avid fans of his work.

Tim Robbins is at a career-best as Griffin, a man whose iffy morales and career goals determine his approach to solving the mystery behind the death threats as well as trying to get his form back as a relevant studio exec. He is magnetic, offering moments of utter sleaze and charm one would expect from Hollywood honchos. The Player also boasts a stellar supporting cast as well as countless cameos from real entertainers playing themselves (Burt Reynolds, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Belafonte, Cher, Jack Lemon, John Cusack, Angelica Houston, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, etc.), merging a highly fictionalized world with one steeped in reality.

Jean Lépine’s cinematography is appropriately cinematic, sticking to stylistic tropes The Player needs to exhibit its noir-like atmosphere. But he also manages to challenge the obvious choices and notions of the genre as well, allowing for the film to be yet another genre shake-up in Altman’s filmography. Thomas Newman’s score is also among his best, driving dream-like compositions perfectly suited to the phoney glitz of La La Land.

The Player is quite simply one of the finest achievements of Altman’s career, and one of the most brilliantly realized movies about movie-making. It’s risky filmmaking unafraid of testing new waters, resulting in a finale that is incredibly funny, ironic, oddly satisfying and an ultimately scathing observation of Hollywood’s growing level of unoriginality and play-it-too-safe mentality. Easily one of my favourite films of all-time, The Player is flawless in execution and intent.

Where you can watch it: The Criterion Channel, HBO MAX (USA), Prime Video (UK)

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