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Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’ Is a Death-of-Hollywood Thriller That Reconnects You to Movies (Column)

Home Movies: It's been nearly 30 years since Robert Altman's great Hollywood satire-that's-not-really-a-satire, and seen now it has much to say about an America torn between reality and illusion.

The Player Tim Robbins
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If you’ve never seen Robert Altman’s “The Player,” it would be hard, offhand, to think of a great movie that’s more fun or one that gives you a headier buzz. But even if you have seen Altman’s virtuoso inside-Hollywood satire-that’s-not-really-a-satire, you should see it again, because it’s one of those Altman films that keeps on giving — and there’s a way that it speaks to aspects of our current moment with surprising force. It’s a comedy of starstruck corruption that’s really about how Americans (or, at least, too many of us) learned to stop worrying and love the dark side.

I hadn’t seen “The Player” since it came out, in 1992, and though it was my favorite film of that year, watching it again this weekend I was shocked to see what a thriller it is. As in: edge-of-your-seat, suck-in-your-breath, OMG-did-that-just-happen? suspenseful. (There’s a faxed message that will make your heart stop.) I’d remembered it as a delectable, switchblade-witted vision of Hollywood — a funny, flowing Altmanesque juggling act — and I was curious to see how its portrait of the motion-picture industry had aged. (Answer: It’s aged a lot…and not at all.) I was also fixated on re-seeing the eight-minute-long tracking shot that opens the film, where the camera drifts around a sunny Hollywood studio parking lot, flowing past one casual conversation and into the next, pausing to hover outside office windows and eavesdrop, through designer blinds, on the meetings taking place inside (yes, Buck Henry pitching “The Graduate: Part II” is still hilarious).

Amazingly, after such bravura all-in-one-take sequences as the opening of “Boogie Nights” and the famous wartime tracking shot in “Children of Men,” the opening shot of “The Player” comes off as even more of a sly magic trick than it did before. Altman’s joke is to underplay the virtuosity, treating is as a throwaway — a mere excuse to showcase the director as happy voyeur. Because of that sequence and other deadpan funny moments (like Richard E. Grant, as a quivering-with-his-own-passion film director, whipping himself to the edge of tears during a pitch), and because the film is strewn with so many cameos of movie stars playing themselves that it feels, at times, like a documentary hosted by Leeza Gibbons, I had remembered “The Player” as a sublime comedy.

And it is. Yet for all its drop-dead tweaks of Hollywood in the blockbuster age, it’s also a movie that sucks you in like a dramatic whirlpool. It’s about a production executive, Griffin Mill (played in a devious, layered performance by Tim Robbins), who’s a ruthless backstabber and proud packager of commercial but vacant movie ideas — the kind of scoundrel who would usually be the villain in a drama of corporate malfeasance. Griffin keeps getting threats in the form of postcards from a writer he’d had a meeting with but left hanging (“I’ll get back to you” being one of Hollywood’s Zen mantras of duplicity). So he stalks a revival showing of “The Bicycle Thief” to confront the angry jealous art-head loser he thinks sent the postcards (he’s played with an implosive swagger by Vincent D’Onofrio). Trying to make peace, Griffin gets his buttons pushed and ends up killing the guy.

Old Hollywood had plenty of antiheroes (the gangsters, the gambling-with-their-life romantic saps of film noir), and the New Hollywood just about patented the idea of asking the audience to sympathize with men — and they were almost always men — who were shabby, crooked, mentally flaked-out specimens of flawed humanity (Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta, Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon,” Jack Nicholson’s antic hotheads). But the protagonist of “The Player” is someone who, in movie terms, may be even more extreme. He’s a weasel. A total smarmy cutthroat slime.

This is the cad we’re asked to identify with, and the subtle beauty of Robbins’ performance is that he gets us on his side by showing us that Griffin, cold and unctuous as he is, is clawing his way through a jungle he never made. He’s a cog — a smooth utensil in a double-breasted suit.

A rival executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), who is introduced when we hear him defending the changed ending of “Fatal Attraction” (“The audience wrote that!”), is coming to work for the studio, and the film makes a lot of hay out of Griffin’s anxiety about getting pushed aside. “The Player” is a tale of fickle job security in a Hollywood taken over by suits. Robbins makes Griffin a flyweight sociopath, weirdly likable in the brazenness of his bankrupt values. He’s the point man in the larger war “The Player” keeps winking at: the one between reality and illusion, the truth and the lie, real endings and happy endings — between movies as a humane art form and movies as blockbuster fakery. Griffin, in a cosmic comeuppance, is the movie executive who doesn’t believe in movies who watches his life turn into a movie.

“The Player” has some early-’90s anachronisms, like Griffin’s flowered ties and Gordon Gekko mobile phone, and the pre-Internet fustiness of it all. But seen now, the film’s most fascinatingly trapped-in-time dimension is how its idea of the selling out of Hollywood is rooted in the fetishization of movie stars. The same five names get blurted at every pitch meeting (Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, “maybe somebody English, like what’s his name!”), almost as a tic. You might watch all this now and think, “How quaint! At least flesh-and-blood actors were driving the equation.” Yet the upshot remains the same as it does today: the takeover of movies by market forces.

“I don’t go to the movies,” says June (Greta Scacchi), the sharp-eyed, moonstruck artist girlfriend of D’Onofrio’s addled screenwriter. “Why not?” asks Griffin. “Life’s too short,” she says, and with those three words, Altman introduces a mournful idea — that in a Hollywood strangled by money, maybe we’re heading to a world beyond movies.

Yet even as he skewers what Hollywood became, Altman, who died in 2006, reminded us what movies could still be. Sex, violence, suspense, a happy ending, an eruption of movie stars that never ends: “The Player,” with knowing irony, has all these things, as well as a riveting action scene (after Griffin discovers a rattlesnake in his Range Rover). It also has connections to earlier films in the director’s canon that looked at Hollywood through Altman-colored glasses, notably “The Long Goodbye.” But “The Player” invites you into its own hall of mirrors, spun out of the illusion Hollywood now stands for. An illusion stoked by fantasy but no longer grand.