If Robert Altman’s The Player were nothing more than a darkly witty, gleefully close-to-bone satire of Hollywood in the age of high concept . . . well, that alone would be plenty to sing about. But for those of us who grew up with Altman’s movies, The Player represents something far more miraculous: a return to the infinitely sly and supple virtuosity that marked his great work of the ‘70s.
In M*A*S*H* (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975), Altman achieved a whirling, off-hand mastery that expanded our very notion of what a movie could be. With their stoned cascades of overlapping dialogue, their multi-character plots that just seemed to evolve, as if the director had simply filmed everyone who wandered in front of his camera, Altman’s movies had a transcendent everyday-ness. Their mixture of cynicism and compassion reflected the trashed dreams of the ‘60s and a spiritually cautious optimism that had risen from the counterculture’s ashes.
If The Player stands as Altman’s triumphant comeback, that’s not simply because of its commercial success, but because, more than any film he has made since Nashville, it has his signature magic—his ability to keep a movie spinning off in so many directions at once that it works on you like a cinematic intoxicant. From its bravura, eight-minute opening shot—in which the camera travels around a movie-studio parking lot, eavesdropping on a dozen random encounters, zooming up to an office window to catch a screenwriter pitching The Graduate, Part II—the film is deliciously, quintessentially Altman: It has his sidelong spontaneity, his way of spotlighting the invisible comedy in casual conversations.
Our hero, a hot young production executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), is the sort of fellow who succeeds in Hollywood because he knows what matters (style, cool aggression, making hit movies) and what doesn’t matter (making good movies). Tall, handsome, and eternally blasé, Griffin journeys from offices to parties, from restaurants to black-tie galas; his whole life is a floating meeting. In The Player, Altman has great fun skewering the rituals of today’s moviemaking elite: the pitches and power breakfasts, the mud baths and mineral waters. He serves up a lip-smacking insider’s tour of the new Hollywood, a place where no story idea will register unless it includes the works “Julia Roberts,” where deals are more important than the movies that get made from them.
In what is by now a legendary casting stroke, Altman got dozens of big-name stars (Burt Reynolds, Anjelica Huston, Jack Lemmon, etc.) to play themselves as “extras.” Apart from establishing a heady atmosphere of realism, the device carries a resonant irony. For Altman’s message is that in a culture where creativity has been eclipsed by marketing—where even celebrity is just another commodity—these Tinseltown luminaries have more potency as themselves than they do as characters. In The Player, Hollywood is a place at once vacuous and infinitely mysterious—a fantasyland that is fast running out of dreams, a metaphysical hall of mirrors in which the movies that get made are mere reflections of the hype-driven culture that surrounds them.
Griffin, who can’t pass a movie star without stopping for a quick, desperate handshake, is one of the new-style hacks who’ve helped turn Hollywood into an acrid corporate schmoozefest. With his mania for “concepts” and blockbuster deals, he has reduced movies to pure packaging, removing the emotion and surprise, the reality (the very qualities that always defined Altman’s work). Suddenly, though, he appears to be in trouble. The studio is rife with rumors that he’s about to lose his job to an even slimier hotshot (Peter Gallagher). More disturbing, he has been receiving a series of threatening postcards from an enraged screenwriter.
In the only scene in which he acts without calculation, Griffin murders the man (Vincent D’Onofrio) he thinks has been stalking him. The crime, though shocking, is really just a personal extension of what Griffin does everyday on the job. Like all of corporate Hollywood, he snuffs the writer.
As Altman has pointed out, The Player is really a satire of itself. It’s both a genuine, hypnotic thriller and a wry parody of the very devices—a hero trying to cover up a murder, an ice-cool seductress (Greta Scacchi) who turns out to be as manipulative as he is—it so unabashedly exploits. And it’s precisely because the movie is able to make those devices work, using them for their old-fashioned entertainment charge, that its satirical vision is rich and exuberant, rather than just a series of sour spitballs. Here, as in the ‘70s, you can feel the affection Altman has for his characters, even when they happen to be cads. Robbins, as the stressed-out Griffin, isn’t just a sleek, murderous yuppie scoundrel—we’re rooting for him even as we’re appalled by his behavior.
Not that Altman is even trying for the vibrant humanism of Nashville or McCabe. The Player reflects America at a colder, darker time. Altman’s triumph is that, even after all these years, he is able to view that darkness with a hipster’s cockeyed gleam. As Griffin’s life is transformed into a “movie” far more gripping than any of the junk he produces, The Player becomes a ticklish yet powerful experience, one that in its ingenious design, its delicate ripples of nastiness and joy, embodies the very creative magic it says has leaked out of American moviemaking. Is it any wonder the film’s ironic happy ending feels so liberating? By its very existence, Altman’s comedy about the death of Hollywood lets you know that movies are still alive and kicking.