Picks and Pans Review: The Player
Two themes move contrapuntally through this Hollywoodcentric film, which is self-important, sanctimonious and, for director Robert (Nashville, M*A*S*H) Altman, surprisingly dull.
One theme tracks a murder investigation into the street-brawl death of a screenwriter. The other theme involves satirizing the film industry's ethics and aesthetics, or lack thereof.
The murder plot is pursued in listless fashion, despite flamboyant overacting by Whoopi Goldberg as a homicide detective and a whimsical performance by country singer Lyle Lovett as another cop. The satire is innocuous, not nearly as penetrating as the stuff Dick De Bartolo turns out in Mad movie parodies. Altman's apparent shock at finding venality in Hollywood, in fact, rings false, as if he had gone into a lion house and expressed shock at finding so many carnivores.
Robbins (Jacob's Ladder) plays a studio executive who screens story ideas and who is receiving threatening postcards from a disgruntled writer.
Altman may be trying to make a point, too, by having Robbins end up courting Scacchi (Presumed Innocent), the housemate of struggling screenwriter D'Onofrio.
Throughout, Altman sprinkles battalions of real actors and directors, mostly playing themselves (see box). Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts end up in a movie within the movie, which seems to exemplify one of Altman's main satirical points—about Hollywood's obsession with big-name stars. But most of the cameos are in-jokey—such as director Alan Rudolph saying, when someone recognizes him, "Yes, it's me, and I know Harvey Keitel too" (Keitel being a frequent actor in Martin Scorsese films).
Hollywood cynicism is so rampant and unguarded that satirizing movie types is easy—like shooting weasels in a barrel. Altman, though, seems halfhearted, confining his lampooning to such overbashed targets as glitz-laden parties, car phones and movie sequels: One writer tries to sell Robbins on doing The Graduate II, in which Anne Bancroft would move in with Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross. But outside of a passing reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger's clout, Altman doesn't criticize any real person or company, heaping scorn only on anonymous offenders and thereby making himself seem as mealy-mouthed as everyone he is complaining about.
By the end the murder subplot peters out and the most enjoyment lies in trying to think of other movies that have satirized Hollywood more trenchantly, such as The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Picture, Sunset Boulevard, any number of Daffy Duck cartoons and maybe Barton Fink. (R)
CAN'T TELL THE PLAYER WITHOUT...
YOU'LL HAVE TO LOOK FAST TO SEE them in many cases, but among the performers in cameo and subcameo roles in The Player are: Steve Allen, Rene Auberjonois, Harry and Shari Belafonte, Karen Black, Gary Busey, Robert Carradine, Cher, John Cusack, Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Teri Garr, Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould, Joel Grey, Buck Henry, Anjelica Huston, Kathy Ireland, Sally Kellerman, Sally Kirkland, Jack Lemmon, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, Jayne Meadows, Martin Mull, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Mimi Rogers, Jill St. John, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Lily Tomlin, Robert Wagner and Bruce Willis.