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‘The Player’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 24, 1992

"The Player" is a rare commodity. It's brilliant and a guilty pleasure. A subtle damning of things Hollywood, Robert Altman's seriocomedy slices its target with a thousand, imperceptible razor cuts. The bleeding comes almost subliminally, the pain disguised by the movie's soothing, L. A.-poolside manner.

Altman and screenrwiter Michael Tolkin (adapting his novel of the same name) have brought "The Player" as up to date as last week's People magazine. In this satire-cum-star parade, no less than 65 celebrities appear as themselves -- and they're just the supporting cast. We're talking Cher, Nick Nolte, Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Belafonte, Andie MacDowell, Burt Reynolds, Lily Tomlin, Jack Lemmon . . .

There are several big others, but their appearances are part of the movie's endless bevy of surprises. Some are there for an instant. Others play larger parts. Everyone of them is making satirical light of themselves. This movie's the kamikaze version of "That's Entertainment."

In the central story, the names have been changed. In Hollywood's dealmaking Babylon, junior studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) weathers a daily fusillade of empty story ideas. Here's Buck Henry pitching "The Graduate, Part II." There's once-arty director Alan Rudolph trying to sell Mill on a project "not unlike 'Ghost' meets 'Manchurian Candidate.' "

But creative banalities are the least of Mill's problems. The grapevine has him losing his hotshot job to incoming slimeball Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). On a more dangerous level, Mill has been receiving threatening postcards from an apparently disgruntled writer.

In the name of movie-going pleasure, that's all that can be revealed. Suffice it to say, Mill's situation gets worse. Much worse. When he meets voluptuous painter June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), things deteriorate between him and girlfriend/work associate Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson); that's the least of his problems.

As with Altman's "Nashville," the movie's a macro-portrait of a world gone deliriously bonkers -- yet making a living anyway. Altman and his able, collaborative players imbue everything with pleasurable, sign-of-the times touches. There are mobile phone-toting voyeurs, dime-a-dozen karaoke bars and a hundred kinds of carbonated water. Richard E. Grant and Dean Stockwell may be the funniest hustling team ever assembled. There are delicious snatches of conversation: "The way you say that makes me think you're not sincerely interested," Goldblum laments to Gallagher at a Hollywood party.

Jean Lapine's camera gazes on the proceedings with the addled euphoria of someone who's been too long in the hot tub. This picturesque sterility is the movie's cutting edge -- an artistic, entertaining balm for the mediocrity it makes fun of. An ultimate irony presents itself: If this movie were pitched in the world it so handily satirizes, would it ever see the green light of production? Watch "The Player" and you'll get to find out.

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