Movie of the Week: The Player (1992)

Robert Altman directs Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi and Whoopi Goldberg in this dark Hollywood satire where a studio executive seeks out the rejected writer who is sending him poison pen letters.

Let’s just take a second to recognise what an unprecedented run of lead roles Tim Robbins had in the 1990s. I doubt he is anyone’s favourite star but his ability to pick a risky project, well written and with a director firing on all cylinders was uncanny in the last decade of the twentieth century. Forget about Cadillac Man and I.Q. Pretty much everything else is enviably gold standard. A half dozen have stood the test of time as ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ classics. His gangly frame and baby face often suggest a dopey oversized innocence yet his instinct frequently draws him to dark tales of injustice and men caught in the grind of a system they don’t fully understand.

The Player is a forgotten masterpiece. Ubiquitous in 1992 but I had to order a DVD in from Germany… the only country where the film is officially still in print. Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a loose suit scumbag who can green light pitches. His power is under threat from a new executive coming in. He is receiving postcards with personal threats on them. And when he investigates who is behind the hate campaign, his life becomes hell. It is The Bonfire Of the Vanities or American Psycho where the murderous yuppie has to carry on with his job. And Griffin Mill is a cold fish… more interested in sabotaging his work rival with an iffy big budget project and seducing his victim’s girlfriend even though it acerbates the attention of the police investigating him.

Altman’s comeback, after a decade in the TV movie wilderness, is his finest film. A Hollywood satire gift wrapped with industry lingo, accurate contemporary backroom deals and A-List stars as extras. The Player is teeming with big names… some playing themselves at pool parties, award shows and restaurant tables, others more traditional murder mystery pieces on the Armani clad Cluedo board.

To be thrown into such an arch hyper reality can be overwhelming. To have a Burt Reynolds and Jeff Goldblum as little more than chattering set dressing convinces we are truly adrift in a Hollywood insider’s life. To be constantly reminded of the mechanics of moviemaking and screenwriting and business compromises makes us question the shifts in tone and plot, leaving no moment unpicked for deeper meaning… even when there is little there. It is a complex trick to persuade the audience THIS IS HOLLYWOOD and also deliver a parody skewering very sausage that comes out of this offal factory. Can we trust a film that avoids the clean and patented methods of formula storytelling when it can afford expensive camera movements and multiple location production values? How are we supposed to take the studio mandated happy ending when we have been left adrift in an independent movie’s style of messy overlapping dialogue and unsympathetic, complex characters? Who is your money on… the maverick creative happy to lacerate the system that rejected him (Altman)? Or the system that put up a decent budget to be caricatured by an artist now reduced to making tourist spot street drawings? Will it open? How will it play with the San Diego mall test audience? Really well, it transpired!

The Player works even better as a neo-noir mystery, as it does a Tinseltown roast. The Los Angeles’s location work evokes straight Raymond Chandler as much as Variety, the walls of the studio backlot are littered with forgotten crime B-Movie posters and Fred Ward is the company enforcer obsessed with Welles’ Touch of Evil… especially its much aped opening tracking shot. Forget the sun and mineral water and brick mobile phones… The Player is cracked spine, pulp thriller in its bone marrow. We have an inscrutable ice queen femme fatale (Scacchi – excellent), a playing possum but whip smart investigator (Whoopi Goldberg – career best) and a mystery man following our every move (Lyle Lovett – distinctive looking, bless him).

But what of Griffin Mill. His increasing paranoia. We are made to feel it by Robbin’s gormless intensity. Is his tormentor still alive? Has he killed an innocent man? Is the woman he is sleeping with involved? Or the studio that employs him? Or the mirror image Vice Executive they are courting to replace him with? Why can’t he, an educated and successful man, bullshit the police like a hero would do in the movies? Why do they hound him and laugh in his face when he can normally get people on that pay grade fired with a casual comment? And why can’t he get the exact mineral water he orders when he orders it?

Why should he have to care about the death of writer? Hollywood doesn’t need them. He sees a hundred of them a day and says ‘No’ 12,000 times a year. That’s his job. He is a no man. He has no talent and no skill. And like all yuppies, as a man without value to the world, he finds himself ill equipped to deal with a hostile takeover when he is on the wrong side of the desk, the needy side of an answer. He doesn’t even have the canniness to wear a different suit (or no suit at all, for fucks sake) to a police line-up. Mill’s only power is to approve a narrative and assign a budget to it. He can commit millions to a project with the right ending. But we have been by his side in his darkest moments, and his most useless flailing wretchedness. We know he doesn’t deserve the case dismissed, the promotion, the girl, the kiss and the swell of strings as THE END appears.

We know he really deserves Thomas Newman’s jangling discordant score that stalks him throughout. The soundtrack rattles desperately like a schmuck rattling his car keys at a valet who is ignoring him. The world owes a Griffin Mill nothing. Let him park his own Land Rover and take whatever water he is given.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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