Murder, He Wrote

The opening tracking shot, at eight minutes even more protracted than the famous single-shot title sequence in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (on which it is obviously - and deliberately - modeled), launches Robert Altman's new film, The Player, on a virtuosic, inspirational high. As the credits roll, the fast-moving hubbub of an embattled motion-picture studio is served up - and eaten up - by the director's peering, intrusive camera lens, denoting clearly that this will be insider entertainment. A movie about the movies.

The sequence begins as an elegant senior secretary (Dina Merrill) attends to the studio chief's schedule. When he arrives in his Rolls-Royce Corniche, he tells another secretary to park the car. Out the door walks Walter Stuckel, the company's director of security (Fred Ward), debating the superiority of extended crane shots (such as Welles's) with an MTV-educated employee, while Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), an executive on the wane, drives his black Range Rover into the lot, and rushes into his office to listen as writers propose material for potential movie projects. Mill's girlfriend, Bonnie, a story editor, advises a subordinate lackey never to get involved with a writer. An itinerant guide leads a procession of Japanese investors on a tour of the studio - a painted advertisement acting as motto proclaims atop a sound stage, "Movies, Now More Than Ever." The mailroom boy gets hit by a golf cart, and as he's being helped up, the camera focuses on scattered letters on the pavement, where we see a harassing postcard addressed to Mill by a writer, who apparently was handed the standard line, "I'll get back to you," and promptly forgotten. The relationship between this possibly homicidal writer and the cool-as-ice executive provides the mystery-thriller fuel propelling forward an irony-laden critique of Hollywood and its cast of "players."

The ambivalent Griffin Mill is the protagonist of the story, and as the film begins, the pressure is mounting for him as a rival studio exec (Peter Gallagher) climbs his way up the silver-screen ladder. Mill is also increasingly obsessed with death-threats he receives in the mail from the unnamed screenwriter. One night he decides to take action. He looks through his phone files, notes the name that crops up most often, David Kahane, assumes he's the culprit, and searches him out. Mill telephones Kahane's English-Icelandic artist girlfriend, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), who tells him Kahane's in Pasadena, at a revival house watching Vittorio DeSica's The Bicycle Thief. Mill drives over to confront him - and does, at the theater's foyer. The writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) is openly antagonistic, and after a drink with Mill at a karaoke bar, they fight and Kahane is killed.

Avenue Pictures has asked the press not to give away the film's many entertaining surprises, and in this instance I concur and abide. Suffice to say, thereafter Mill is investigated by a wily Pasadena detective (Whoopi Goldberg), who senses he committed the crime but has no case. Meanwhile, a love affair flowers between Griffin and June. The back-stabbing studio politics continue to the very end against the backdrop of Hollywood's scintillating array of power lunches, intimate star gatherings, and entertainment-industry conclaves. (More than 65 stars, all playing themselves - from Steve Allen, James Coburn, Peter Falk and Rod Steiger to Cathy Lee Crosby, Anjelica Houston, Mimi Rogers, and Cher - populate this unreal world like ornaments at Versailles.)

Hollywood's mind-boggling melange of glamour and stupidity, a combination other directors have alluded to in the past (and which Blake Edwards, in S.O.B., handled as subtly as a bricklayer), is deftly treated by Altman. Working from a script by former Village Voice writer Michael Tolkin (based on his novel of the same name), this is Altman's first feature film to address American popular culture since Nashville. It may not be quite as good as that brilliant traversal of country music, but rarely in recent years has Altman emerged so utterly in control of his aesthetic voice. His quicksilver storytelling approach, a unique kind of shorthand that relies on large ensemble casts to make points trenchantly - and above all, quickly - succeeds here where Altman's Health and A Wedding failed. The Player almost matches Nashville in the economy and richness of the conveyed information.

The material of that opening sequence is sheer treasure. The "pitch," we learn, has to be "25 words or less," so what we are treated to is a gallery of hyperventilating movie whores rambling in cliches, slogans, and inside catchphrases. Buck Henry, playing the writer of a sequel to Mike Nichols's The Graduate (which, coincidentally, Henry co-wrote), wants Mill to cast Julia Roberts - the epitome of "hot" stardom - as Benjamin and Elaine's daughter in suburbia. (Mrs. Robinson, he says, lives upstairs and has suffered a stroke.) A pair of screenwriters pitch another story that puts Goldie Hawn in the desert - call it "Pretty Woman Meets Out of Africa." Another writer comes to pitch a political-metaphysical tale - "Ghost Meets The Manchurian Candidate." And on and on. Everything is relentlessly, hilariously trite.

Altman has always possessed a sure hand with his actors, and here he achieves this again. Robbins is superb in capturing Griffin Mill's glacial elusiveness. With his slightly childish, malleable face, he can be affecting, especially in his scenes with Scacchi. But always there is a suggestion - more, an assertion - that he's a killer in more than the literal sense. (Altman and Tolkin suggest that the entire moviemaking machine is chockablock with white-collar murderers.) All the supporting performances - with the exception of Whoopi Goldberg, whose best lines are delivered in a hackneyed, jivey-ironic style - are sharply observed and sardonically funny. These vintage performers, in a brilliant feat of comic conspiracy, appear to be having the time of their lives lighting a pyre for Hollywood's deal-making monarchs. As well they should.

Directed by Robert Altman; written by Michael Tolkin; with Tim Robbins, Gretta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Vincent D'Onofrio, Richard E. Grant, Sydney Pollack, Dean Stockwell, and Dina Merrill.



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