THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
When it was released in 1992, Robert Altman's The Player caused a huge sensation. It was a satire of Hollywood made by a great director - one who'd seen his own share of ups and downs and was therefore in a perfect position to bite the hand that feeds. I still remember my friends and I driving an hour out of our way to find a theater that was playing it. That's how excited we were. And I won't lie: The Player has been one of my favorite movies ever since. It's now available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.
This is the story of Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a studio head whose career is shaky after a few high-profile flops. Rumors are circulating that newly hired exec Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) may be taking over the top spot. Griffin's job paranoia is compounded by the menacing postcards he keeps getting from an apparently disgruntled screenwriter. Narrowing the suspects down to one, David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), he sets out to confront the guy, only to end up accidentally killing him. He then romances the dead man's girlfriend June (Greta Scacchi) while eluding the investigation of some police detectives (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett).
The Player is only nominally a murder mystery, though. More than anything, it's a skewering of the Hollywood studio system, where executives strive to manufacture hits according to what they think audiences want. Nowhere it this more effectively emphasized than in the now-famous nine-minute tracking shot that opens the film. The camera picks up bits of conversation as the characters walk across the lot, and occasionally it peers into Griffin's window as he hears a pitch. Those pitches sound crazy to us ("It's Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman!") but to Griffin, they sound like cash registers ringing. And Griffin's fear of his stalker is largely symbolic, representing his bigger fear: being out of touch with public taste.
The politics of the studio system, Altman suggests throughout, have caused motion pictures to become watered down, making the possibility of genuine art less likely. Dozens of celebrities appear in cameos throughout to depict the wheeling and dealing. One of Altman's masterstrokes was to pack his film with stars so that Hollywood lunches and pitch meetings felt as authentic as possible.
The greatness of the movie is already established. Watching it again after many years, I had only one question: How will The Player hold up? The answer is "surprisingly well." Yes, there are some now-outdated references (Griffin wants to cast Goldie Hawn as the lead in a major movie, and everyone talks about Alan Rudolph as the epitome of artiness), but the vast majority of the satire is as sharp today as it was 18 years ago, right down to the concept that Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis are top names on every studio exec's "wish list."
In other areas, the film seems almost prescient. The studio's security chief (Fred Ward) frequently laments the MTV-style of editing that has pervaded movies. "Everything these days is all cut, cut cut," he says more than once. Consider that The Player was made three years before Michael Bay directed his first movie and you can see how tightly Altman's satire had its finger on the pulse.
All the performances remain strong, and the laughs are still in the same places. In a lot of ways, The Player can be admired even more now than it was at the time, because it so succinctly diagnosed the sickness that still causes Hollywood to churn out too much soulless "product." With excellent picture and sound quality, this is a film ripe to be discovered by a new generation and re-appreciated by those who remember it from the first time around. As far as I'm concerned, The Player on Blu-Ray is one of the best and most notable home video releases of the year.
( out of four)
The bonus material has been recycled from a previous DVD release, but that doesn't mean it's not great. Altman and writer Michael Tolkin (on whose book The Player is based) provide an audio commentary, discussing their intentions to satirize Hollywood and the methods they used to pull it off. Their dissection of the opening scene is particularly noteworthy.
"One on One with Robert Altman" is an interview in which the late director talks about creating such an original film. He also discusses scenes that didn't make the final cut, explaining what went on and why he had to delete them. These scenes are also available to watch individually. Some big stars (Patrick Swayze, Jeff Daniels) were cut out, their cameos a victim to pacing. There's a notable sequence in which Griffin starts to suspect that June may be the one trying to kill him while they are away at a spa. In another, Larry proposes an uneasy truce with Griffin while having a power lunch. All the deleted scenes are good. Altman had his reasons for dropping them, but there's no filler here.
Finally, the Blu-Ray contains the original theatrical trailer.
The Player is rated R for some sexual content, violence, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.