Ty Burr
April 02, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Player

Current Status
In Season
Tim Robbins, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Gallagher, Richard E. Grant, Brion James, Lyle Lovett, Sydney Pollack, Greta Scacchi, Rod Steiger, Cynthia Stevenson, Dean Stockwell, Fred Ward
guest performer
Steve Allen, Cher, James Coburn, John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Lily Tomlin, Bruce Willis
Robert Altman
Michael Tolkin
Comedy, Drama

We gave it an A+

Less than a year out of the box, Robert Altman’s The Player has had an impact both conspicuous and negligible. Critics went wild over it, of course, since it allowed them to indulge their air of moral superiority over Hollywood from a vantage point they’re not used to: inside. Nor was it surprising that general audiences gave the film a cool reception: Most people pay their money to look at a happy facade, not to peek behind it. Besides, Altman himself has said that The Player is essentially about office politics of all kinds — and that’s usually what we go to movies to get away from.

Lost among the hype and counterhype, though, is the staggering craftsmanship of The Player‘s filmmaking. Even if Altman’s slangy tale of studio intrigue is too inside for you — like reading a trade paper for an industry in which you’ve never worked — there’s unparalleled invention to every aspect of production. That’s why The Player is the rare modern movie that gets better the more you watch it. And deeper: Details of character and motivation surface on repeat viewings, swimming into view like cryptic fortunes in those old Magic 8 Balls. And funnier: An overheard line of dialogue in an early scene will blossom into a joke 30 minutes later. And creepier: Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), the studio executive whose soul slips away after he kills a pesky screenwriter, is as cocky and damned as Faust in Armani.

Luckily, the video industry has responded well to The Player‘s kaleidoscopic pleasures. The tape version available for rental in stores includes extra goodies: an interview with Altman and five scenes cut from the final theatrical release. Plus, the Voyager Company is courting laser weenies with a high-quality laserdisc package that includes, among many other splendors, a handy map of the film’s 65 star cameos. Organized both alphabetically and chronologically (are these guys anal or what?), this guide makes it that much easier to play Spot the Celebrity: Without it, you’d never notice the late Brad Davis, in his last feature-film appearance, in the far distance of the first restaurant scene.

Once you get past cheap thrills, though, you start to relish the intricacy of the filmmaking. The celebrated eight-minute opening shot, covering the comings and goings of a typical studio morning, is both a stunning technical exercise and a gentle spoof on same (only later do you realize how efficiently it introduces the main characters). And throughout, all the elements of Hollywood’s art are marshaled to mock its inhabitants. Jean Lepine’s camera darts through party scenes, spearing the hustle and insecurity. Thomas Newman’s score gradually turns an eerie wind-chime motif into a hectoring Greek chorus. And Altman’s patented style of overlapping dialogue naturally fits a town where every voice clamors to be heard because everyone wants to be a star.

After such a rich feast, the extras that come with the tape of The Player are a tasty dessert. The interview segment with Altman is eye-opening — he calls the movie a satire on all the things he dislikes in himself — and Whoopi Goldberg discusses how she begged for the part of Detective Avery. You also get glimpses of scenes left on the cutting-room floor, some lightweight (cameos by Patrick Swayze and Jeff Daniels), some meatier: There’s a deliciously mean lunch meeting between Griffin and his studio nemesis, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), and a romantic interlude in which June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) is revealed to be more dangerous than the release version lets on.

But these are low-calorie compared to the buffet available in the laser package. Here the cut scenes are shown in their entirety, without Altman’s voice-over obscuring the dialogue. Here are interviews with Altman (a different one from the tape’s), cinematographer Lepine, writer Michael Tolkin, and 20 screenwriters telling true tales of Hollywood idiocy. Here’s an analysis of the opening shot; an illustrated history of 70 movies about Hollywood; a detailed Altman filmography; and on and on. The difference between the tape and disc goodies can be summed up by noting that Altman calls The Player a ”metaphor” in the tape’s interview, but you have to go to the disc’s to find out what it’s a metaphor for: ”the cultural problems with Western civilization.” Which would be unbearably pretentious if it weren’t pretty much on the money. Tape: A Disc: A+

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