Never has an artist flipped off both his industry and his audience so artfully as Robert Altman, director of "The Player.'' Bitterness has rarely been this funny.
From the film's long opening shot, which opens Friday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass., Altman's camera focuses in on the vacuous, absurd life of a Hollywood producer and our relationship to the movies. He uses the well-publicized cameos by more than 60 stars as a running commentary on the celebrity-crazed studio system as it's currently run.
Tim Robbins plays Griffin Mill, the snide vice president of production at a major studio, who sleeps with his story editor, drinks the best water and drives a Range Rover. On a day when he hears pitches for a sequel to "The Graduate'' (offered by Buck Henry, of course) and for other ludicrous films described in terms of other movies ("`Ghost' meets `The Manchurian Candidate'''), he discovers the studio may be bringing in an even snider, dumber producer (Peter Gallagher) to replace him.
HE ALSO starts to receive threatening postcards with numerous movie references. Unnerved by the threats, he goes through his appointment books looking for a screenwriter irritated enough to want him dead.
He stumbles on the name David Kahane, and he heads out to Kahane's home to buy him off. Instead, he talks to Kahane's lover, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi). He flirts with her on his cellular phone as he watches her paint and scratch her underarm inside her own home.
Eventually, she tells him where to find Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), who turns out to be even more bitter than Mill imagined. They fight, Kahane dies, and that "Crime and Punishment''-in-reverse act sets off the film's decidedly wicked plot. Sell-out follows sell-out.
ALTMAN SAW both the top and the bottom of the Hollywood heap. His late-'60s and early '70s films "M*A*S*H,'' "McCabe and Mrs. Miller,'' "Brewster McCloud,'' "Thieves Like Us'' and the classic "Nashville'' rode critical acclaim; then he went bust with even more esoteric films like "Three Women,'' "Quintet" and "Buffalo Bill and the Indians.'' The ensemble films "A Wedding'' and "Health'' got lost in the shuffle, and the Robin Williams "Popeye'' was problematic and not a bit dull.
But "The Player'' has all the energy of his small, 1980s works, particularly Altman's one-man Nixon fantasy "Secret Honor.'' Altman's tone for Michael Tolkin's screenplay is nearly perfect.
Scene after scene builds with in its own giddy pace, even as Altman's camera seems to stare passively at the characters. The director's intelligence shines through: One character rails against the MTV-style quick cuts as the camera scans the entire studio lot in one shot.
IN ANOTHER terrific scene, Mill gets called in for questioning by Pasadena police (Whoopie Goldberg and stone-faced Lyle Lovett); he is so out of touch with reality he can't even figure out how to sit down at Goldberg's desk. The ending, which you will long remember, is both hilarious and devastating.
Robbins plays Mill as a man who can't quite figure out whether he's in moral torment. Scacchi is detached as a woman who loses a lover and finds another.
The supporting players are all extremely strong, including Goldberg as the detective, Cynthia Stevenson as the story editor and Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant as a pair of producers pitching a Death Row love story.
AND, OF course, there are the cameos "Around the World in 80 Days'' meets "The List of Adrian Messinger.'' Jack Lemmon, John Cusack, Lily Tomlin, Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts all show up. Some of Altman's favorite actors are back as well, including Paul Dooley and Elliott Gould.
As in the best satire, "The Player'' extends its hooks beyond the industry it sends up; we are implicated as well for buying what these people sell. We, after all, want movies to end happy and to show hope, no matter what life outside the theater holds for us. Last summer's "Hot Shots'' poked fun at the New Hollywood product; "The Player'' attacks the New Hollywood attitude that produced the product.
J-W Arts Editor