Guest Movie Review: The Player (1992)

By Eli Sanchez
Guest Contributor
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The Playereli opens up on a one take shot overlooking the backlot of a film studio focusing on the day-to-day gyrations of a would-be studio executive, Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins). He’s the guy who greenlights an idea for a film to get approved to go to the studio head to make a decision on whether a film gets made or not. Keep in mind, he doesn’t have final say; but any screenwriter is going to have get by him in order to get a deal. Either way, if you’re trying to get a film made, you have 25 words or less.

Mill is getting hate male from a jilted screenwriter of whom he promised, “I’ll get back to you.” But of course, he never did. This is of course during one of the pitch meetings of 25 words or less.

We start getting to know Griffin. He find out who he’s sleeping with, what kind of car he drives, where he eats, even the varied different types of waters he’s drinking (the guy is obsessed with his health and doesn’t touch alcohol).

The first hate mail is just that it, seen as a random prank and not a ton of attention is paid to it. Later on, driven by his own madness because of the ongoing death threats via thematic postcards, Mill seemingly tracks down his stalker, and of course he tracks down the wrong one he’s jilted and in a moment of passion during an argument he accidentally drowns the guy in some standing water behind a bar in Pasadena. Mill thinks he’s taken care of his harasser, but he continues to get harassing faxes and postcards throughout the rest of the film.

During the process he meets the girlfriend of the guy he killed and falls in love with her. At the same time his studio is recruiting another sniveling dealmaker of whom he thinks is angling for his job Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). There are whispers of Mill’s job being taken away, and Larry Levy is going to take his.

The film hearkens back to 1940’s film noir in which the hero is more anti-hero and you’re still rooting for him even though he’s proven he’s an absolute low-life.

The Player was famous for being a few different things. It was the comeback film for Robert Altman, who was on a bit of an exile after the commercial flop of Popeye the movie. It was also one of those large Altman-esque films that carries a panoply of famous actors. Nashville (one of Altman’s earlier films) had a huge collection of actors actually playing roles, whereas this film actually has many of the stars playing themselves. Possibly the oddest thing, the real actors have very few lines; and though I didn’t count them, I get the impression the actors themselves get only 25 words or less.

Cinematically, Los Angeles is used effectively as a character in this film. But it’s the split personality of Hollywood and Pasadena seen as the two halves of the personality in this film as well as the dual nature of Griffin Mill himself. Hollywood is Griffin’s comfort zone, a place he can more or less navigate treacherous water, whereas Pasadena is the place he goes to make mistakes and comes unraveled. He commits a murder there. He gets interviewed in a police station there and loses his cool, and then he ultimately stands in a police lineup there and ultimately avoids getting pinched for the crime he commits there.

Everywhere Griffin goes, the camera focuses on movie posters of famous film noir, and may pan over to a random picture here and there, even to one of Alfred Hitchcock with his eyes closed. The pictures and posters, with their one line teasers pasted diagonally along the front of the artwork all in 25 words or less, all bespeaking danger and threats lurking, or even silently judging Griffin, almost as if the pictures and posters themselves were the trapped souls of both Griffin Mill and the screenwriters he has rejected over the years.

Oddly enough, Mill survives the machinations of a well cast Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett as the Pasadena detectives trying to make allegations stick to the murder of the rejected screenwriter.

Just when you think Griffin has survived all of it, Larry Levy is getting a film pitch by another writer who turns out to be the postcard writer. Griffin negotiates with him over the car phone and promises him a film deal. Obviously the author (he goes unnamed) has been aware of Griffin’s troubles and is seeing that it’s his time to cash in.

Ultimately Griffin survives the ordeal, marries the woman he falls in love with, and we find out that he’s now become the head of the studio and his would-be replacement (Levy) was his replacement after all (but more his successor).

This film was recently released as part of the Criterion Collection Series and features a short documentary on the making of the film that features Tim Robbins, Stephen Altman (the production designer and director’s son) and Michael Tolkin.

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I've reviewed films for more than 20 years. Current movie reviews of new theatrical releases and direct-to-video or streaming films are added weekly to the Silver Screen Capture movie news site. Many capsule critiques originally appeared in expanded form in my syndicated Lights Camera Reaction column.

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Posted in 1992, Eli Sanchez, Eli Sanchez Guest Review

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