Robert Altman's Tinseltown satire THE PLAYER from 1992 is one of his most realized, disciplined efforts. It has a linear plot! It's a film that often plays as a genuine thriller, to boot. Yet all in that somewhat recognizable style, so Altmanesque. Akin to a provacateur wandering through gardens and offices and restaurants, picking up snatches of conversation and perhaps focusing more on those in the peripheries than the ones in the foreground. In Hollywood, a town of endless meetings and parties, the opportunities are plentiful.
Altman never was a "player". Maybe in the wake of MASH's success in the early 70s he enjoyed some attention but his decision to remain true to his idiosyncratic vision thereafter made it unlikely that studio types were kicking in his door. Unless it was to wrestle away final edit on his latest eccentric opus. Being an outsider but inside enough made the director the perfect overseer for Michael Tolkin's dark (could it be any other way?) tale of a studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Mill is plagued not only by competition from a new story exec named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), but also a string of death threats from an anonymous screenwriter.
Mill rejects lots of story pitches and script submissions. But the postcards he receives from his mystery would-be assailant grow more ominous. Eventually he suspects writer David Kahane (Vincent D'onofrio), and after an unsuccessful attempt to entice him with a deal over drinks, Kahane ends up dead. The exec arranges the scene to appear as if a robbery had gone wrong.
Do Hollywood types like Mill have a conscience? Only to save their own skin. Mill becomes suspect number one in the eyes of a pair of sardonic detectives played by Whoopi Goldberg and Altman reg Lyle Lovett. And then the death threats continue...the real stalker also is now aware that Mill has assailed the wrong person.
THE PLAYER continues the storyline with a fair amount of detail straight to its wildly clever and (naturally) cynical finale. Tolkin's script (adapted from his novel) reads like the work of someone who's submitted one too many entries to a studio "slush pile" or waited in vain by the phone for that call from someone who "loved (their) work." It seems pretty astute into the vagaries of the Hollywood game, with its hotshot producers and creepy relatives of hotshots who think they can just ring up Winona Ryder or someone equally famous for a date because of their lineage. The chain smoking writers who get less respect than the guy holding the boom mic.
Altman's caustic outlook never goes over the top (even during Goldberg's tampon twirling scene), as some Hollywood satires have been known to. His laissez faire direction allows many long takes of several well known actors just going about their business, like Burt Reynolds rambling at a lunch or John Cusack looking suitably embarrassed when Mill says hello to him. Or Jeff Goldblum appearing as if in traction at a party.
But THE PLAYER also disturbingly has us rooting for the bad guy. A protagonist who has murdered an innocent and carried on with his girlfriend (Great Scacchi) while ignoring his own (Cynthia Stephenson). I recall that this very notion was too much for a friend of a friend who joined us for a matinee. He walked out at one point and waited for us in the lobby. I bet Altman would've been pleased to know that.