Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New on Blu: "The Player"

Seldom has an artist roared back from semi-exile with the wide-grinned schadenfreude displayed by Robert Altman in his vitriolic 1992 comedy The Player. Unable to get studio support after the (relative) critical and financial failure of the 1980 Paramount-Disney co-production Popeye, the maverick filmmaker spent the 1980s working on a variety of modest projects—stage plays, their film and television adaptations, an HBO series, and so on. When Vincent and Theo proved a minor, art-house hit in 1990, Altman found himself at the helm of a high-profile picture for the first time in over a decade. It is somewhat typical of the iconoclastic director that he took the opportunity to write a “fuck you” to Hollywood. The delicious irony, of course, came when that poison pen letter put him back on top.

The picture begins with a justifiably celebrated opening sequence, an eight-minute unbroken shot that establishes the buzz of the movie studio setting and sets up the characters—with occasional meta-movie commentary by studio security head Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward), who’s telling anyone who will listen about how much he misses those old long takes in movies like Touch of Evil and Rope
(“Everything now is cut, cut, cut…”). We meet Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), a studio executive who hears pitches from writers for potential projects; each one is pitched as a Julia Roberts or Bruce Willis vehicles, and is summarized (hilariously) by its proximity to hit films—i.e., “Not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate” or “It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.” Griffin is your basic Hollywood sleazeball, unlikable but harmless, a yes-man who spends most of his life saying no, but he’s sensing trouble on the horizon in the form of a hot-shot up-and-comer named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) with an eye on Griffin’s job.

And he’s been getting these postcards. They’re apparently from a spurned writer, someone who pitched Griffin a project, and then waited for a follow-up that never came. The postcard author isn’t taking it well; he’s threatening Griffin’s life. The exec does some amateur detective work and thinks he pins down the scribbler as David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio). Griffin blows some smoke, Kahane calls him on his bullshit, and they get into a heated argument that culminates with Kahane pointedly asking, “I can write. What can you do?” Not long after that legitimate question, Griffin kills the writer. Whoops.

Griffin spends the rest of the story not only attempting to elude the police, but to keep Levy at bay and move in on Kahane’s girlfried (Greta Scacchi)—well, what the hell, she’s single now, right? He’s a detestable louse, but never a simple villain; we’re never rooting for him, by any means, but we’re also not all that worked up over what he gets away with. That’s the balancing act of Robbins’s nuanced, cold-blooded turn, which is one of the great anti-hero performances in modern film. He conveys, with ease, Griffin’s softness at the beginning of the story, how he works the angles and projects the confidence while subtly revealing flashes of fear and uncertainty underneath—and then shows how the brute force of his act hardens him, inside and out, in his ruthless line delivery and the smashing way he uses his flashing blue eyes.

The film isn’t all snickering in-jokes and score-settling; Altman (and his terrific cinematographer Jean Lepine) revel in the rich California aura and enjoy the kick of writer Michael Tolkin’s set pieces, like his visit to the cheerful Pasadena Police Department or the unexpected visitor he finds in his Range Rover. Even as a senior citizen (Altman was 67 when The Player was released), he was trying new things, thinking outside of convention with scenes like the intensely erotic sex scene that plays out entirely from the neck up. In a moment like that, you can feel the electricity of the written-off filmmaker rediscovering his joy for the cinema, for playing in what he frequently called his “big sandbox.”

Much of the movie’s considerable sense of fun is in the pains Altman takes to place it in a “real Hollywood” that names names and makes specific references (“Who wrote the ending of Fatal Attraction?” asks Levy rhetorically. “The audience did”)—all the better to more properly poke its targets in the eye. But that’s not enough; in addition to the impressive cast of big names and future collaborators (Robbins, Ward, Gallagher, Lyle Lovett), half of Hollywood pops up as extras. There’s Jack Lemmon, playing piano in the background in a ritzy party scene. There’s Cher, in a buoyant red dress at a black-and-white ball. There’s Scott Glenn and Lily Tomlin bickering in rushes (shades of those I Heart Huckabees outtakes in her future). And there’s Burt Reynolds, having lunch with legendary critic Charles Champlin, shaking hands with Griffin and muttering “Asshole” as he walks off. The parade of stars is a stunt, sure, but it adds to the thick industry atmosphere, and the picture’s sense of history (further accentuated by the film noir posters in Griffin’s office, or the picture of Hitchcock peering out from the wall of a bar). The throwaway meta-movie moments are clever; a cop invites Mill to come look at “mug shots. You know ‘em. Like in the movies,” and a witness, going to a lineup, notes with wonder, “This is just like they do on television!” And in the glorious final scenes, we realize with delight that it’s not just a movie that knows movies—it’s a movie that knows it is a movie. Nice touch, Altman.

Over the course of his fifty-year career, Robert Altman’s films visited all regions of these United States, introducing us to likable oddballs from all walks of life and points in time. But there was one place in Altman’s America that he seldom bothered to visit, and that was home. He returned to the hometown of his youth in 1996’s Kansas City, but aside from that, The Player is one of the few portraits of the time and place where Altman spent most of his days. If this was how he saw it, you can understand why he was so anxious to get away.

"The Player" makes its Blu-ray debut today, Tuesday September 7th.

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