"Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change? We're educated people."
After establishing his auteur credentials in the 1970s, Robert Altman nearly destroyed his commercial viability as a filmmaker with the disastrous 'Popeye' at the start of the 1980s. For that, he spent a long decade lingering in near-obscurity on the fringes of the art house circuit, producing small movies that inspired neither much critical attention nor popular appeal. It was his scathing "bite the hand that feeds him" Hollywood satire 'The Player' that finally brought the director back to prominence in 1992 and launched a very successful career comeback.
Based on the (really lousy) novel by screenwriter Michael Tolkin, 'The Player' stars Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, an amoral movie studio executive who has burned too many bridges in the industry. While in the midst of fending off career advances from an upstart rival (Peter Gallagher), Griffin also finds himself on the receiving end of threatening postcards from an anonymous writer he has apparently wronged. The problem is that he's wronged so many, many writers over the years that he can barely narrow down a list of suspects. When he makes the mistake of trying to confront and smooth-talk the most likely candidate, things go disastrously wrong. Soon, there's a dead body on the ground and blood on Griffin's hands. He spends the rest of the film covering his tracks, dodging police investigators, and launching production on his studio's latest horrible wannabe-blockbuster movie. A dedicated multi-tasker, he also finds time to seduce the writer's girlfriend. As the saying goes, seize the day.
It's like 'Double Indemnity' meets 'Postcards from the Edge'. With heart.
'The Player' is an extremely "meta" movie. The film opens with an eight-minute unbroken tracking shot in which the characters discuss famous lengthy tracking shots in other movies. The entire story takes place in the insular culture of Hollywood, a place where movies are the only subject that anyone can talk about, and every conversation inevitably leads to a pitch. Even the central murder mystery begs comparisons to famous movie mysteries. The cast is populated by dozens upon dozens of celebrity cameos (Altman called in every favor he could muster), half of whom play themselves while the other half play fictional characters in the story – blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.
The movie is a very cynical black comedy in which the hero is also the villain, and we find ourselves rooting for him to get away with murder. The (largely improvised) dialogue is clever and funny. A running subplot about the picture Griffin's studio is trying to make – an "uncompromising" Oscar bait legal drama called 'Habeas Corpus' that's continually watered down to pandering simplicity at every step of development – pays off with a hilarious climax.
What doesn't work so well in 'The Player' is the "thriller" aspect of the story, which is never particularly suspenseful or unpredictable. As I mentioned earlier, Tolkin's novel (which I've read) is actually quite terrible. It has the thinnest of one-dimensional characters and an utterly formulaic plot structure. Altman's film isn't necessarily any better in those regards, but the director improves the material greatly by spinning the story off into his own whimsical tangents. Still, a red herring plot thread in which we're meant to believe that Lyle Lovett is the writer stalking Griffin doesn't even remotely work. Nor is the romance between Griffin and his victim's girlfriend (Greta Scacchi as a bohemian artist who doesn't know or care about movies) at all convincing.
I prefer Altman's next film, 'Short Cuts', over this one by quite a considerable margin. Nonetheless, 'The Player' is a very good and entertaining movie that allowed the director to get his mojo back after a long drought. If nothing else, that earns it an important position in cinema history.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video has issued 'The Player' on Blu-ray under its New Line Home Entertainment label. The disc has a minimalist DVD-style main menu, but is fortunately not burdened by any annoying trailers or ads at the start of playback.
I can't say that the 'Player' Blu-ray is up to the standards of some of Warner's sterling restorations of other important catalog releases. This clearly seems to be a disposable title for the studio. Regardless, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer is a respectable enough effort.
The 16:9 image (opened up slightly from the 1.85:1 theatrical ratio) is very bright and sunny. It has fair detail and appropriately gaudy colors. (Some of those outfits that people wore in the early '90s were real eye sores!) Sharpness and clarity of fine object detail often vary from shot to shot, but that seems to be endemic to Altman's free-wheeling shooting style. The director favored large wide-angle group shots and had a fondness for zoom lenses. Razor sharp focus was rarely one of his priorities.
Light film grain is present (again, it varies from shot to shot). I don't see any objectionable use of digital filtering. That grain does sometimes come across a little noisy, however. Contrast levels appear to have been mildly tweaked, which leads to a little bit of black crush, but not enough to get too concerned about. All in all, this is a pretty good transfer, if not necessarily a great one.
'The Player' ran in theaters with an Ultra Stereo soundtrack. For Blu-ray, the studio has transcoded that to DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format, but retained the subdued nature of the sound design. The mix has a bit of directionality across the front soundstage, but the surround channels are used only sparingly for faint musical envelopment. This seems appropriate for the style and subject matter.
Most of the dialogue in the movie was recorded with wireless microphones, because Altman enjoyed letting multiple characters talk on top of one another. Quality of the dialogue channel is clear but thin. The musical fidelity of Thomas Newman's unusual score is likewise fair but unremarkable, though it does build to a little bit of bass in places.
All of the bonus features on the Blu-ray are carried over from the DVD edition, which was issued way back in 1997.
'The Player' was an important movie in the career of director Robert Altman, but it doesn't necessarily hold up as a great one. Still, it's a pretty sharp satire of the film industry and offers some genuine laughs. The Blu-ray looks and sounds decent enough, and has a few perfunctory supplements. It merits a solid recommendation.