The Player is famous for it’s eight-minute plus opening shot (a throwback to Truffaut’s intro in Day For Night). Snaking in and out of offices, conference rooms, and parking lots on a major Hollywood studio lot, this shot is the ultimate introduction to the world of the film. It’s like an ant farm with people milling, meeting, exchanging folders, constantly babbling, deflecting off each other; everyone bouncing in different directions. Names drop endlessly, movies are referenced and cross-referenced giving the impression that nobody really means what they say, that everyone is talking simply to hear the sound of their own voice. Artistic resolve to tell “real stories” crumbles in the face of multi-million dollar budgets and star power. By the time this one shot ends, Altman has already delivered an expert scathing satire, but the story that unfolds over the rest of The Player’s two hours really drives his message home.
Griffin Mill (Tom Robbins) is our protagonist. A studio executive- the “writer’s executive”- his long frame cocooned in a fashionably Californian tan suit, is initially presented as a totem of this system. He takes meetings, phone calls, makes rejections, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of mineral water brands. Hollywood comes easily to him, because it’s everything to him. On one occasion, in an incredibly fashionable Hollywood lunch spot, Griffin breezes in late, blaming traffic – as one does in LA – and sits down with a deadpan quip; “Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change?”. After a moment pregnant with verging panic from the other guests, he bursts into a grin and they all laugh with relief. There’s nothing outside of the bubble worth considering.
His only challenge is the constantly churning rumor mill that drives studio politics. Griffin’s primary nemesis is the rising new guy Larry Levy (played by Peter Gallagher and his reliably evocative eyebrows), whose sharky approach threatens Griffin’s enviable lifestyle. Griffin got to the top by playing the game, and sacrificing any conscience he may have once possessed in favor of the successful Hollywood executive’s secret weapon: an enlarged ego and he’ll resort to desperate measures to protect delicately balanced tower of success.
Even before the meat of the story comes into focus, it’s clear that something sinister is on the horizon. References to crime noirs with names like Murder in the Big House or D.O.A. run rampant. Some show up as posters on office walls, others are dropped during meetings as a basis for this derivative idea or that remake. So when the murder finally finally happens, it comes as a relief. And like in the aforementioned noirs, it’s no tragedy. The victim is in this case, Vincent D’Onofrio as the insufferable, self-important artiste screenwriter nobody David Kahane. Like in all the other onscreen murders, his loss is no real loss to anyone or to society. The only reason to catch the killer is to maintain some semblance that justice reigns.
Whoopi Goldberg as the disarmingly direct Detective Avery from the Pasadena Police Department provides a stark counterpoint to the smarmy characters that Griffin Mill is used to dealing with. She doesn’t suck up to him or buy his bullshit. And as a result, with their every encounter, he’s increasingly out of his element. The apex of his discomfort comes when he is brought down to the station in Pasadena, so waaay out of his comfort zone, and as she rummages around trying to find her tampons and questions him, he can barely keep it together. It’s too much real humanness. For a man trying to convince the police he’s innocent, he’s awfully jumpy. He knocks over a stack of papers and is unable to answer the straightforward questions fired at him (‘Did you fuck her?’ being the most difficult for him), sending the entire office at the Pasadena Police Department into a fit of hysterics, and causing the film to make a definitive change in tone.
From this point on, Griffin Mill is unhinged, moving through his meetings in a daze, burning bridges with former allies, and taking off for the farthest reaches of the known universe – an exclusive spa resort retreat in Palm Springs – in a desperate attempt to escape the seemingly inevitable murder accusations. No mud bath can wash away Griffin’s problem though, and he’s called back to face his destiny, a man marching to his death sentence. It almost gets real. But all of a sudden, it’s not. Deus Ex Machina in extrema leaves Griffin, with his deceptively innocent baby-face, right where he thinks he should be all along – at the top of the heap, invincible and impenetrable.
Griffin Mill isn’t a good guy or a likable guy or even very charming. He is charmed and hateable and when he lives happily ever after, Altman has created a very unhappy happy ending. Wrapped up tightly and prettily, a white picket fence idyll for Griffin and his femme fatale lady love (Greta Scacchi), we are painfully aware that although it looks like a happy ending, the bad guy got off scot free and got the girl. After all the noir machinations, we end up with an anti-noir, and it’s anti-climactic. Similarly, all the clever in-jokey winking that runs through The Player becomes tiresome. We get it, Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis are the hot ticket stars. Their names are dropped in the first act, so when they show up in the last scene, we are supposed to groan with recognition that director Robert Altman is winning at the game he hates to play. He wins with the big shots and with the critics. He gets his cake and eats it too. It’s a joke that’s seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film, and after two hours, it’s hard to muster more than a wry smile for the obvious punchline.
But this obvious pandering to our expectations is the joke. Every movie is the same as every other movie, reusing the same stars, punchlines, and endings. To this end, the tediousness is necessary for Altman to make his point about Hollywood. The familiarity that is all around in The Player – the movie posters, the character types, the actual movie stars, the genre structures, the rehashed plots – serves a purpose. As an audience, we’ve sat through this before, one more time won’t hurt. We know the drill, and what’s more, we cling to the Hollywood BS in a quest to suspend our disbelief and sublimate reality. At the end of the day, Griffin Mill and his bubble world aren’t parasites sucking life-blood out of audiences and artists alike. They give us what we want, what we need, they feed the beast. It’s mutualism – everyone benefits. Altman’s greatest success with The Player is accurately representing this, without passing more judgment than a knowing wink.