There are some films we've screened for this series that are undiscovered treasures, and some that are award winners in serious need of a second opinion. But the ones that actually seem ripest for being revisited are the so-called cultural benchmarks - movies that defined or embodied a specific time or place but whose longevity is largely dependent on one's personal or perhaps generational connection to the story or characters.
This week's selection is The Player, a decided comeback for director Robert Altman that provided audiences with a particularly unflattering and yet seemingly accurate portrait of Hollywood in the early 1990s. The question is, is its Tinseltown tale still relevant (much less entertaining) today?
The Facts: Released in 1992 by Fine Line Features, The Player was extremely well-received by critics, winning multiple awards at the Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards, the Writer's Guild of America, and at Cannes, where it won Best Actor for star Tim Robbins and Best Director for Altman. The film grossed approximately $28 million dollars, which made the film a sizable hit for Altman, and currently enjoys a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: The thing I was quite frankly most afraid of was that this film would not seem resonant in the way that it did in 1992, but I was glad to discover that it's just as ruthless, incisive and accurate as if it were made today. Michael Tolkin's screenplay (based on his own novel) manages to perfectly balance a real murder-mystery story and a scathing indictment of Hollywood politics, and Altman's cacophonic direction of the actors and overlapping set pieces seems only to augment that world's sense of inverted values, miscommunications and power plays.
Tim Robbins seems almost a little young to be such a bigwig, but he offers the right kind of intelligence, cunning, and self-aggrandizement to play Griffin Mill as a guy who seems capable of actually committing a murder, decimating the dreams of prospective filmmakers, and yet retains our sympathies. Greta Scacchi is wonderful as the obtuse free-spirit who finds herself charmed by Mill and his authority, despite an early admission that "life is too short" to watch movies.
Finally, the way the screws tighten on Mill throughout the film really, really work well, juggling his own fearful culpability, his romance with June, and his tenuous future at the studio, and scarcely need all of the Hollywood verisimilitude. But as the cherry on top of this glorious layer cake of commentary and entertainment, it's those layers that really make the film not just a great portrait of moviemaking at that particular time, but one of the definitive depictions of Hollywood on film.
What Doesn't Work: Although its politics and its general observations about the filmmaking industry seem timeless, or at least still completely relevant, the representative icons of that time period no longer resound quite as strongly. Although Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis remain icons, they are no longer the go-to movie stars for every project. That doesn't make the film outdated, however, particularly since even a casual follower of Hollywood politics will recognize those names as stand-ins for virtually any generation's biggest box office draws, its most in-demand actors and actresses.
Meanwhile, Thomas Newman's score sometimes works but more often feels like a bouncy, discombobulated assembly of percussion that fails to consistently evoke the dramatic tone of certain scenes. That said, this score precedes Newman's American Beauty-suburban dystopia period, when he acquiesced to repeating himself time and again with music that offered only one tone (or maybe a one-dimensional one), so it stands out as a collection of music that sometimes accomplishes its designated task - as when the final scene crescendoes with a perfect, Hollywood sweep of strings - even though it's unconventional or less Wagnerian than one might prefer.
What's The Verdict: The Player isn't just a great movie, it's essential viewing for any and all cinephiles, aspiring critics, and especially aspiring filmmakers. Much like Wall Street became emblematic - even heroic - to the people whom it meant to critique, this is a movie that shows only the worst of Hollywood, at least in terms of emphasizing the business in show business, and yet there's something strangely appealing about it, even attractive. It's worth noting that Warner Brothers' newly-minted Blu-ray offers a really unexceptional transfer of the film (at least by high-definition standards), but as a whole the new release only reminds critics and cinephiles that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and as awful as it may be, we can't turn our eyes away, and ultimately want to see success, vindication, and yes, even glory.