If Hollywood is anything like it's depicted in Robert Altman's The Player (1992), then it's no wonder I lament the state of movies. In this story about a studio executive caught up in murder, blackmail, and professional insecurity, here is an institution not filled with Irving Thalbergs but petty, spoiled, narcissistic people who care nothing for their art or craft, only the box office gross, and will do anything to advance their own positions. This reflection of Tinseltown feels too close to reality.
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is a big-time studio executive who's having a career crisis. Not only is he hounded constantly by desperate filmmakers looking to make their movies, his boss (Brion James) is losing confidence in him, a younger executive (Peter Gallagher) is looking to replace him, and he's receiving anonymous death threats via post cards from a writer he brushed off. He confronts a writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) he believes is behind the threats but accidentally kills him. Now, he's being followed by cops, including a bemused detective (Whoopi Goldberg), and to top it off, he falling in love with the dead writer's girlfriend (Greta Scacchi).
The Player has probably the largest cast of recognizable actors and cameos I've ever seen in movie. It could almost be game: count how many you recognize and find out at the end (everyone is listed in the credits). It's sometimes hard to determine who's playing a character and who's playing themselves. The result is this movie feels like it's really in Hollywood and not a movie representation of it. Everywhere you look, there's a star, and where there's a star, there's an ego to bruise and some sort of behind-the-scenes politicking. Everyone is out for themselves in Hollywood.
It's hard to classify The Player. It's a satire for sure, but it's not a laugh-out-loud hysterical farce. The humor comes from the dialogue (what Malcolm McDowell and Burt Reynolds say of Griffin, for example) and recognizing the true-to-life details (such as when we find out who's starring in the movie within a movie). There are some tense parts, but I wouldn't call it a drama or a thriller either. Somehow, Altman mixes all these narratives to make a movie that is a scathing indictment against Hollywood and the studios. This is an industry that shields a murderer, destroys careers and lives, and toys with people's emotions because those at the top can. It's a power trip.
And the way all the story lines are tied together in the end is impressive. On the surface, it appears to be a typical Hollywood, happy ending, but it's really skewering that type of ending. The way this film concludes, that's an unhappy ending.
Performances all around are solid. Robbins carries the film. He's a total scumbag, but he has a degree of likability. We hope he's developing a conscious. The script and direction are sharp. Few satires are this cynical or this on-target.