At the start of The Player, two fast talking Hollywood types amble out the front door of a studio office, trading one-liners about all the films that begin with spectacular, unbroken long takes, from Touch of Evil (1958) to Absolute Beginners (1986). As the camera fluidly leaves these characters and picks up others, the joke becomes hilariously, knowingly clear: this is the ultimate long take, a parody of all the jazzy, showy moments in modern cinema.
Beyond being a smart joke, this scene is an indication of the film's compelling ambiguity – Altman's admittance that his own movie is complicit with the system it so savagely parodies. By the end of the movie, you'll be wondering how the cream of Hollywood's stars – from Jack Lemmon to Julia Roberts – ever agreed to be a part of this supreme exercise in subversive mischief.
The Player was touted on its release as the comeback of brilliant American director Robert Altman – his recovery twelve years after the commercial disaster of Popeye (1980) with Robin Williams. The claim is far from correct: Altman never stopped working in film, theatre and TV, both in Europe and America. But The Player displays a mastery and modernity which are breathtaking. It is fabulously cynical entertainment – on par with Blake Edwards' acidic S.O.B. (1981) – for a generation reared on the inside dope offered by Premiere magazine and its ilk.
The witty script (by Michael Tolkin from his novel) resembles a more successful screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Griffin Mills (played with icy charm by Tim Robbins) is a slick studio executive. He evaluates pitches – brief verbal synopses of often absurdly high-concept film ideas (such as The Graduate II). Griffin is being made increasingly nervous by the power plays in his company, and especially by the death threats he is receiving from a disgruntled, ignored scriptwriter.
Here begins a thriller plotline involving mysterious identity, accidental murder, deception, bluff, coincidence, physical danger and sexual intrigue (between the Robbins and Greta Scacchi characters). Altman carries it all off faultlessly. But he never confines himself to the straitjacketing conventions of a given genre. As in all his previous films (such as MASH  and Nashville ), Altman delights in exploding the plot to form a detailed mosaic, a world in miniature. The oddball minor characters, fleeting incidents, overheard conversations, strange digressions – these are what make The Player marvellous.
Altman effortlessly encapsulates modern Hollywood filmmaking, while providing a radical alternative to it. Against all those feel-good movies with strong heroes, clear conflicts and clear-cut motivations, The Player offers a shifty hero, fuzzy situations and ambiguous motives – sliced and diced with the purest irony.
There has always been a murky moral area in Altman's cinema – a bitter, jaundiced sense that human motivations are never pure or noble, no matter what lifestyle or ideology people consciously espouse or pretend to follow. This thoroughgoing misanthropy separates Altman from his faddish imitators.
Yet The Player is a film that adores the games, ruses and endless performances of its suspect characters. The director revels in springing all the intricate traps of daily interaction, in a world where people never really understand themselves, let alone each other.
© Adrian Martin June 1992/May 1993