A writer's valentine of venom to the town of tinsel as directed by an exiled genius who once knew favor but was later driven away, "The Player" is a terrific and scorching indictment of the way movies are made now.
What Michael Tolkin (who wrote) and Robert Altman (who directed) have done most effectively is isolate the classic movie executive personality, '90s style, in a low-key reptile named Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins with a pound of mousse streamlining and dampening his hair). He's sleek, cosmopolitan, well-fed, well-dressed, in his 30s, handsome, laid-back, very charming, and has the gift of conviction. He's smart, and, more importantly, he's shrewd. He understands the rules; he nurtures the contacts, watches the board carefully, never overcommits, cuts his losses quickly and thinks two jumps ahead. He may like movies a little. He can even get a movie made, if he has to, and the signs are right; but what he really does for a living is say no. To a writer, he's the worst nightmare in the world: the abominable no-man.
Altman, who directed "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville," begins with a brilliant conceit: an eight-minute tracking shot without a single cut, in which the camera whirls around the studio lot, pausing to penetrate offices where desperate writers are making absurd pitches in the shorthand they think the producers will appreciate ("Think of it as 'Ghost' meets 'The Manchurian Candidate' -- but with heart"); executive secretaries smooth the way for their powerful masters; and, in high ironic counterpoint, a studio security boss laments the passing of the tracking shot, moaning, "It's all cut, cut, cut now," while of course the sequence he's in stays, stays, stays.
Quickly enough, Griffin's dilemma is etched: Another bright boy has been hired by the studio. He's just as glib, just as slick, just as shallow but new, and Griffin has begun getting threatening faxes from a writer he's blown off in the past. Since he blows them off 30 and 40 a day, it's hard to figure who the guy might be. But he quickly reduces the possibilities, and smokes out a likely suspect. The writer (played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who was once a fat Marine in "Full Metal Jacket") is bitter, angry, clearly unbalanced, obviously the right guy.
In a fit of rage, Griffin kills him. Of course -- the irony is exquisite -- it's the wrong guy. Thus Griffin must deflect a police investigation, keep his career safe from the predations of the new boy, and try and find the right writer. At the same time, he's having an affair with the widow of the man he's killed. And, he's got to do all this without sweating because the first rule in the culture is, "You must not show agitation, passion, fear, doubt, confusion or loss of vitality. If you do so, the penalty is instant destruction."
"The Player" works best as an anthropological penetration of what is possibly the most predatory culture on Earth, next to the yard at any major state prison. Here's an insider's tour of Hollywood, hilarious and pointed and abetted by literally dozens of other "players" who appear happily willing to subvert the system that has made them as prosperous as maharajahs of the last century.
But more generally the movie floats through the Hollywood nights, wafting on the gardenia-scented breezes and sliding into clubs and offices and even homes appointed in their exquisite good taste. It manages to re-create the elixir of the town in some queer, resonant way. It makes you feel the lure of the movies and all that money, just out there for the grabbing, if you're moderately talented and just a little lucky. In other words, even as it disapproves of the barbaric coast, it cannot help but admire the barbarians.
Certain things don't click. The macabre affair between Griffin and the widow (Gretta Scacchi) doesn't really come to much; it hasn't the perverse edge it should have. The "thriller" elements -- with Whoopi Goldberg and jugheaded Lyle Lovett as cops trying to snare Griffin -- isn't compelling enough. It just peters out.
Still, the film is a fable of pure anger. It's malice in wonderland, or the lizard of Oz.
Starring Tim Robbins and Greta Scacchi.
Directed by Robert Altman.
Released by Fine Line.