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‘The Player’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 24, 1992

In "The Player," Robert Altman's masterly, deadly funny murder-mystery/satire of Hollywood's power elite, Tim Robbins plays Griffin Mill, a studio executive so callow he seems stuck in some early stage of fetal development. Mill is a boy wonder, one of the handful of major players who can "green-light" a picture, but he's so unformed that the flesh on his face hasn't decided yet where it intends to settle, and peering out over his dimpled cheeks are a set of baby blues so unsullied by experience that they appear nearly transparent.

Though Mill is on top of the heap, his eyelids quiver with impending panic. Rumors are flying around town that an executive from Fox named Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) is about to take over his job. And to make matters worse, some frustrated writer whose story pitch he brushed off has been sending him postcards saying things like "Your Hollywood is dead," and threatening to kill him.

What's ironic about this abuse is that, at least on the sliding moral scale Altman has set up, Mill is one of the good guys. He's known as the writer's executive; every day his office is crammed with writers pitching their ideas for "The Graduate II" or a political thriller for Bruce Willis described as " 'Ghost' meets 'The Manchurian Candidate' " or a Goldie Hawn vehicle that's kind of like "The Gods Must Be Crazy," only this time "the Coke bottle is a television actress."

Working from Michael Tolkin's adaptation of his novel, Altman is playfully dead-on in his critique of Hollywood fatuity in all its trendy forms -- the cars and car faxes, the obsession with bottled water, the facile insider-speak. This is the real "L.A. Story," Hollywood seen from the inside by a director who's seen it all, who knows every twist and dip in the roller coaster.

At times, the view is so convincing that the film almost seems like a documentary. At premieres and lunch spots and parties, real-life stars flit by the camera, giving very lifelike impressions of themselves as "Hollywood stars," and it's an aspect of Altman's impudence that he uses the likes of Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Nick Nolte, Jack Lemmon, Andie MacDowell and Lily Tomlin as backdrop figures in his Tinsel Town portrait. Who else but Altman would dream of using Cher for texture?

If nothing seems quite real, it's because Altman's searching, constantly restless camera keeps peeling back layer after layer of artifice. The movie is all reflections, glass, water, mirrors, screens; everything is "framed," self-referential, even the dialogue. When Mill finally tracks down the writer he thinks has been tormenting him, it's at a screening of "The Bicycle Thief." And, afterward, in the karaoke bar where he and David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio) have a drink, the patrons sing while images of dreamy couples wander the beach on the monitor behind them. We're as far inside this dizzying Looking Glass world as Alice was.

For that matter, the story conference the next day is as outrageously absurd as the Mad Hatter's tea party. Levy has come on board at the studio, and his first suggestion is that the executives come up with the ideas for their movies themselves, eliminating the writers. It's easy, he says. Just pick out any story in the paper and you've got a movie -- not knowing, of course, that one of the articles is about Kahane's death. The joke about eliminating the writer is, in fact, the whole point, especially when Mill adds that if they can also figure out a way to eliminate the directors and actors, then they might really have something. Secretly, the executives despise the artists who make the movies because their so-called creativity is the one chance element in their calculations. Without the artists' meddling they might be able to hammer together a movie out of spare parts of past successes and sell it straight to the public. At best, the artists are a necessary evil.

Of course, the artist wants to kill the executive too. An executive like Mill holds the artist's life in his hands, and perhaps no one in Hollywood knows that better than Altman. For the execs, a filmmaker like Altman is the ultimate wild card. Because he doesn't follow the formulas, he can't be trusted to follow orders. It's his picture, not theirs. But it's Altman's insistence on making a movie his way, out of his own gut, that makes "The Player" such a miracle.

The film, which begins with a single, gorgeously sustained eight-minute camera move, is blissfully out of touch with contemporary trends in moviemaking. Though it's loaded with references to other films, its only real precursors are to be found in Altman's own previous work -- "Nashville," "The Long Goodbye" and "Tanner '88."

From start to finish, the film is surprising, both in style and narrative. The ensemble cast is loaded with big names in small roles. Dean Stockwell and the marvelous English actor Richard E. Grant show up as uncompromising screenwriters whose dynamite movie idea becomes a story within the story of the film; Fred Ward plays the studio's head of security, whose job it is to keep Mill's involvement in Kahane's death quiet; and, as the detectives assigned to investigate the murder, Whoopi Goldberg and country singer Lyle Lovett make a sublimely unlikely pair of buddy cops. Even director Sydney Pollack turns up, as Mill's smoothie show biz attorney.

With the consummate ease of a veteran showman, Altman keeps an awesome number of balls in the air. The picture works on every level -- as a comedy, a mystery, a romance (after Kahane's death, Mill becomes involved with his girlfriend, played by Greta Scacchi), even as a mordant essay on the revolving-door anxiety of the studio brass.

What's remarkable is how little rancor shows up in Altman's critique. Watching this fabulously enjoyable film, you get the sense that, behind every frame, the director is smiling from ear to ear. Altman loves practical jokes, and "The Player" is his craftiest prank, his jolly last laugh.

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