If Robert Altman's The Player were nothing more than an ingenious, gleefully close-to-the-bone satirical thriller about Hollywood in the age of high concept...well, that alone would be plenty to sing about. The film's achievement doesn't end there, though. Miraculously, The Player is a true comeback for Altman a return, after more than 15 years, to the infinitely sly and supple virtuosity that marked his great films of the '70s.
In M*A*S*H (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye(1973), and Nashville (1975), Altman achieved a whirling, offhand mastery that expanded our very notion of what a movie could be. With their stoned cascades of overlapping dialogue, their delicate blend of compassion and cynicism (his critics always saw the latter and missed the former), their multicharacter narratives that just seemed to evolve, as if the director had eagerly filmed everyone who wandered in front of his camera, Altman's movies had a transcendent everydayness. He took the chaos and banality, the exuberance and blind optimism of American life and fused them into a teeming crazy quilt a spontaneous mirror image of a nation torn between its reality and its dreams.
And then? Then, in one of the most spectacular flameouts since the dawn of Hollywood, his artistry seemed to dribble away overnight. Right after Nashville, Altman began to make trivial, often snide satires (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding), halfhearted genre movies (A Perfect Couple, O.C. & Stiggs), and, in the '80s, small and accomplished adaptations of stage plays (notably the Richard Nixon psychodrama Secret Honor). Even when his films weren't disasters, gone was Altman's magic, his ability to keep so many balls in the air at once that his movies worked on you like cinematic intoxicants.
Now, the magic has returned. From its bravura, eight-minute-long opening shot, in which the camera spins around a movie-studio parking lot, eavesdropping on a dozen casual conversations, zooming up to office windows to catch screenwriters pitching projects like The Graduate Part II, The Player is deliciously, quintessentially Altman. It has his deadpan mastery, his sidelong way of spotlighting ''jokes'' within the jovial mindlessness of everyday banter.
Our hero is a hot young production executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Tall, handsome, and blasé, Griffin is the sort of fellow who succeeds in Hollywood precisely because he knows what matters (style, cool aggression, making hit movies) and what doesn't matter (making good movies). Suddenly, though, he appears to be in trouble. The studio is rife with rumors that he's going to lose his job. Even more disturbing, he's been receiving threatening postcards from an enraged screenwriter.
Based on a novel by Michael Tolkin, The Player is both a genuine thriller and a deftly visionary satire of Hollywood in the age of terminal corporate burnout. As Griffin journeys from offices to parties, from restaurants to black-tie galas, Altman serves up a lip-smacking insider's tour of the new Hollywood, a place where no story idea will register unless it includes the words ''Julia Roberts,'' a place where deals have become more important than the movies that result from them. In an inspired stroke, Altman got dozens of big- name stars (Anjelica Huston, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte, etc.) to play themselves as ''extras.'' Apart from establishing a heady atmosphere of realism, the gimmick carries a resonant irony. Watching The Player, we practically crane our necks to get a look at the next star cameo. In a celebrity-mad, movie-bankrupt culture, Altman seems to be saying, these tinseltown luminaries have more potency as themselves than they do as characters.
Griffin, who can't pass a movie star without stopping for a quick, desperate handshake, is one of the new-style hacks who have 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 qualities, not so incidentally, that always defined Altman's movies). And yet the second Griffin attempts to track down his postcard-writing adversary, his whole life seems to turn into a movie and a pungent, oddly thrilling one.
Beneath its sardonic surface, The Player is a loose-limbed comic meditation on what's real and what's not real. The film hints that a player like Griffin can no longer distinguish reality from the movies: In Hollywood, the two have merged into one great big synthetic beast. Altman, though, is also saying that the very qualities of excitement and soul that have been squeezed out of contemporary American films are still there in our lives, if we'd only wake up and recognize them. He's saying that reality is a better movie than the movies Hollywood now makes.
The Player features some of the funniest scenes in years. The jokes have a ripe observational edge, as when Richard E. Grant, as a breathless screenwriter, practically faints with rapture while pitching his idea for a thriller. Here, as in his '70s classics, Altman gets his actors to dig deep into their own personalities. The movie is a feast of small, succulent actor's turns from Greta Scacchi (with her cool, melancholy hauteur) as the woman Griffin falls in love with to Peter Gallagher as his hotshot rival, who's hilariously glib tossing off story ideas. Even when Altman uses pop singer Lyle Lovett for his shovel-faced, horror-movie looks, the off-kilter casting is never just a joke. Holding everything together is Tim Robbins, who gives a wonderfully straight, low-key performance as the stressed-out Griffin. Robbins counterbalances Altman's cynicism: When was the last time a Hollywood player was portrayed as this corrupt and, at the same time, this sympathetic?
Not that Altman is even trying for the vibrant humanism of Nashville or McCabe. The Player reflects America at a colder, darker time. In a way, it's | the film's sheer entertainment value that allows Altman to attack Hollywood with such blissful ferocity. The movie might almost be his way of saying, ''Look, this is what a film can be a sleight-of-hand trick, yes, but one that encompasses the real world, that works on its audience in spry and delightful ways.'' Is it any wonder that The Player's sarcastic-yet-sincere 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.