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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘The Player’ Brings Robert Altman Back With a Vengeance

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Never mind what soothes the savage breast, it’s anger that provokes it to action. And it is a cool, brittle disdain for the movie business and everything it stands for that turns “The Player,” an artful stiletto aimed at the bashful heart of Hollywood, into a biting if considerably overhyped return to form for director Robert Altman.

A natural iconoclast who found himself at war with the system even when it applauded exceptional features such as “MASH” and “Nashville,” Altman, though rarely out of work, has drifted further from the limelight in recent years.

Equally disaffected when he wrote the 1988 novel on which “The Player” is based, screenwriter Michael Tolkin thought he had produced a literary goodby to the business that had repeatedly refused to embrace him.

Instead, Tolkin (who in fact went on to write and direct “The Rapture”) and Altman combine here to turn out an extremely pointed and knowing show-biz dissection that, naturally, has everyone in Hollywood talking, both on screen and off. For the most publicized aspect of “The Player” (throughout San Diego County) has been its use of some half-a-hundred industry luminaries, from Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis to Harry Belafonte and Cher, in enjoyable if itsy-bitsy cameo performances.

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And “The Player” does capture L.A. and today’s Hollywood with chilling exactness. It’s more than the way the details are right, things like the cars, the houses, the restaurants, even the mineral water (in an amusing touch, protagonist Griffin Mill never orders the same kind twice). Tolkin and Altman are also hip to the mind-set of a completely self-absorbed, not to say amoral, business awash in frenzied round-the-clock schmoozing, where contacts are made at AA meetings and all nominally creative executives really want to know is, “What did it do worldwide?”

In fact, the most telling part of “The Player” (rated R for language and some sensuality) is its icy look at what passes for the creative process at the majors. As part of a bravura opening tracking shot on an unnamed studio lot in which Altman pays tribute to Orson Welles’ famous “Touch of Evil” opening, Jean Lepine’s fluid camera weaves in and out of numerous writer-to-executive pitch meetings, the traditional first step in getting a picture off the ground.

Here is earnest Buck Henry, pitching a kind of “Graduate II,” with Mrs. Robinson living in the attic. And isn’t that Alan Rudolph describing a “politely political cynical thriller with a heart,” kind of a “Ghost” meets “The Manchurian Candidate”? And everyone but everyone has a part that would be just perfect for Julia Roberts.

Taking all these pitches (which are funny because of how unfortunately close they come to reality) is Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), the very model of a modern 125-calls-a-day studio executive. Emotionless and impeccably dressed, with not a hair or an attitude out of place, Mill is a consummate liar and compulsive careerist who nevertheless has gotten a reputation as “the writer’s executive.”

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That reputation does not seem to have reached one particular scribe, presumably someone who didn’t get his calls returned, who begins sending Mill a series of threatening postcards, culminating in an accordion fold-out with the tart message, “In the name of all writers I’m going to kill you!” And if that weren’t enough to disturb the man’s emotionless tranquillity, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), a hard-charging executive from another studio, is hired on at Griffin’s lot as a direct threat to his domain.

Clearly, “The Player” is at its best when tweaking Hollywood for all it’s worth, using not only all those cameos but a wide variety of amusing acting by people like Fred Ward as the head of studio security and Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant as the purveyors of a particularly blooey project called “Habeus Corpus.”

Even using that famished horde of celebrities as bit players does not play like the gimmick it may sound like. In fact, it underscores one of “The Player’s” major points, which is the shallowness of an environment where the famous function as little more than markers in a shoddy game of power and position.

Unfortunately, Griffin Mill ends up dabbling in more than studio politics. He becomes involved in a troublesome police investigation led by Detective Susan Avery (Whoopi Goldberg) and starts to fancy an artist with the unlikely name of June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi). And whenever he does, “The Player” begins to flag in a way that the film’s extravagant advance hype, a product in part of the very “aren’t we fascinating” preening that is one of its targets, does not prepare one for.

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First off, those parts of the movie call on the executive to have at least a nodding acquaintance with human feelings, and Griffin Mill is neither convincing nor interesting when he starts to be troubled by doubt and passion. Moreover, even when Griffin has a heart of stone, Tim Robbins is lacking in the kind of ice-cold magnetism that allows a thorough bastard to hold the screen like nobody’s business.

And though the very act of being involved in a film with the coherent plotline Tolkin provided has kept director Altman’s legendary improvisational instincts under a bit of control, all the passion in “The Player” has clearly gone into the Hollywood satire, leaving the poor police story to pretty much fend for itself.

While it’s not surprising that no one cared very much about the humble mechanics of plotting, that absence of involvement does leave something of a hole in the movie. Yet, like many wounds received in this town, it does not turn out to be fatal. “The Player” has enough energy to pick itself up and ride off into the sunset, leaving a shook-up but grateful bunch of civilians in its agreeably cynical wake.

‘The Player’

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Tim Robbins: Griffin Mill

Greta Scacchi: June Gudmundsdottir

Fred Ward: Walter Stuckel

Whoopi Goldberg: Detective Avery

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Peter Gallagher: Larry Levy

Cynthia Stevenson: Bonnie Sherow

Vincent D’Onofrio: David Kahane

An Avenue Pictures presentation, in association with Spelling Entertainment, released by Fine Line Features. Director Robert Altman. Producers David Brown, Michael Tolkin, Nick Wechsler. Executive producer Cary Brokaw. Screenplay Michael Tolkin, based on his novel. Cinematographer Jean Lepine. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Costumes Alexander Julian. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Stephen Altman. Art director Jerry Fleming. Set decorator Susan Emshwiller. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

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MPAA-rated R (language and some sensuality).


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