I promised some people
that I won't be doing the whole Tim Robbins is a deity spiel
anymore, so I won't. But, well, he is.
So many classic Hollywood themes are subverted in this movie by the director Robert Altman that it's difficult to know where to start. It is perhaps helpful to first point out that the industry itself is the main subject matter being dealt with here, mercilessly and darkly, as a parallel structure to a more wide ranging discussion of ambition, accountability, integrity and success.
A young and ambitious studio exec, Griffin Mill (Robbins) is in danger from two dissimilar but tangentially connected sources. One, he is geting threatening postcards from a mysterious person, most likely a writer whose script he rejected. Two, his professional position is under threat from a rival, one Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher, an Altman stalwart) who is angling for his job. He is a man on his way down, in the best tradition of early Hollywood film noir.
As is so often the case with Altman, it is difficult to provide a more detailed synopsis of the plot without telling the whole story of the film, because various sub plots and random events go a long way towards building both the atmosphere and the unravelling of the movie. Suffice it to say that the traditional, Kafka-esque descent of the protagonist into a macabre world of despair and deterministic irrationality is subverted in an unexpected manner, and after he is put in a position from which, morally, the modern viewer would consider him irredeemable. The compromise of ethics and artisitc integrity are also ever present in the film, through the story of a writer with an innovative script who is shown to gradually give up every one of his declared ideals to the point of complete sell-out.
In-jokes and cameo appearances from industry people are legion. Unlike the less successful later Pret A Porter, in The Player these are a spice which serves to enhance the plausibility of a convoluted and immoral main story line, and less a feature in themselves. A certain rare balance is struck by Altman here between complete truth and complete fiction - though highly fictional, this movie nevertheless retains a slight, and aunnerving, atmosphere of an unsympathetic documentary about the film industry and its movers and shakers. The (very long) list of cameos is mostly populated by people who are either just outside of the main stream (like Cher and Teri Garr), are Altman fans and favourites (such as the excellent Lily Tomlin or Eliot Gould), or are so big as to be beyond the reach of irony (James Coburn, Susan Sarandon). Still, one wonders if the young Julia Roberts (this was 1992, remember) knew exactly what a potential controversy she's getting herself into!
The movie is not an easy listening kind of experience. It is ruthless, unnerving and very darkly hilarious. Still I would recommend it to anyone who is a movie buff and even to those who are just medium sized fans, as a glimpse behind the glitter, but also as a startling and thought provoking moral tale.
Directed by Robert Altman. Adapted for the screen from Michael Tolkin's novel by the writer himself. The cast list is so long, and so glorious, that I can only urge you to go to IMDB and read it for yourself. It's a waste of space to list any but the main characters:
Tim Robbins - Griffin Mill
Greta Scacchi - June Gudmundsdottir
Fred Ward - Walter Stuckel
Whoopi Goldberg - Detective Susan Avery
Peter Gallagher - Larry Levy
Brion James - Joel Levison
Cynthia Stevenson - Bonnie Sherow
Dean Stockwell - Andy Civella
Richard E. Grant - Tom Oakley
Sydney Pollack - Dick Mellon
Lyle Lovett - Detective DeLongpre