Important for the renewed clout it gave Robert Altman, The Player (1992) gets my vote for the most overrated film in the director’s oeuvre. It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s a bitterly entertaining—sometimes hysterically funny—work. It’s also a shrewdly knowing work. Aspects of the film are almost documentarian in approach. The murdered David Kahane’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) funeral at the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (now refurbished as Hollywood Forever Cemetery) starts on a shot of a dead fish in one of the ponds. Considering the shabby state of the cemetery in 1992, it’s not only an apt image, chances are good that the fish just happened to be dead and Altman took advantage of it. Similarly, it’s a picture-perfect image of a “Hollywood funeral,” recalling such real-life bad taste as Pat O’Brien’s comment at Carole Landis’ funeral, “This is the toughest matinee Carole and I ever played.” But this is also part and parcel of why I find it a lesser Altman work: It’s too easy, too facile, and it’s cynical in a way no other Altman film I can think of is.
There’s no real sympathy for the characters—just a blistering satire of the worst of Hollywood. (One wonders how completely the amazing roster of guest stars were in on the joke.) Maybe that’s why Altman seems to be distracting himself with technical games, like the admittedly impressive long-take opening shot. It’s unfair, I suppose, to call the shot merely a game, since Altman uses it to encompass the Philistine mindset of 1992 Hollywood, with its fake reverence for a past the players barely understand and with once-honored creators like Buck Henry being reduced to pitching The Graduate II to producers who only dimly know that The Graduate was a popular success. The film’s plot—following hotshot Griffin Mills (Tim Robbins), his murder of an abusive screenwriter, his attempts to get away with it and his equally desperate attempts not to lose his clout to upstart newcomer Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher)—works well as a clothesline on which to hang the satirical jabs. It’s brilliantly done, but Altman’s humanity—as much a trademark as ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue—is curiously absent. Maybe it was too close to home for him, and the temptation to skewer the studio system that had written him off in the age of demographic studies was too great. It’s essential to Altman’s filmography, but it’s not a complete Altman film.