Robert A. Heinlein once wrote a story called "He Built a Crooked House." In this story, a house constructed in four dimensions* falls in on itself (California earthquake), and the result is a small box of a house, obviously only one room, but when you go inside the whole eight-room house is there. But any exit to the outside world just leads to another part of the house. There is no way to get out.
Robert Altman's "The Player" is the opposite. It looks like an ordinary house, with all the usual rooms, but if you try to go in the front door, you end up in the back yard. If you try to go in through the garage door, you find yourself coming out of the basement. There's no way to get in, because there is no inside. It's all surface.
The first clue, the one that sets everything up, is the long tracking shot that opens the movie. The camera moves around and around a studio lot, following different conversations, looking in windows where various writers are pitching various (mostly inane) ideas for movies.
All well and good, but the tip-off is that it calls attention to itself. First, in one of the conversations we overhear, one character is complaining to another that there are no long shots in movies anymore. It's all cut-cut-cut. Then he goes on to remember great long shots in the past, including (of course) the long tracking shot that opens Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."
The whole movie is like that. You can't miss anything, Altman points at everything of any significance. It's like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, where if someone is crying someone else will hold up a sign saying, "Sad, isn't it?"
The characters are all two-dimensional at best. None of them even need names, except as a convenience. They could just be called The Player, The Aspiring Player, The Idealistic Victim, The Self-Involved Writer, etc. And none of them have any really likable qualities, so there's no risk of the audience getting particularly emotionally involved with anyone.
(BTW, movie reviewers who talk about the writer who dies being victimized by the studio system are betraying their own prejudices (reviewers are writers, after all): the guy is a nitwit and his idea for a movie is narcissistic and inane.)
I could go on, but I would start to give the idea that this is a pan. I heartily recommend people see this movie, I just want to give some idea of what to expect.
The movie is Altman's movie about Hollywood, but not in the obvious way that "SOB" is Blake Edward's. I love "SOB," but the "Hollywood director gets back at Hollywood by making movie showing director screwed by system" thing was a pretty straightforward response. Altman is after a much subtler joke, and he carries it off wonderfully.
This is a bad movie (by any ordinary standards, including the standard we expect from the director of classics like Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller). But that's the point. He made a Successful Hollywood Movie, every bit as inane as the Bruce Willis/Julia Roberts blockbuster that he shows us the finale of. And it has been, of course, very successful. He is telling us that the Altman Victimized by Hollywood thing was wrong. He could have made this movie at any time. Unlike "SOB," this is not a bitter movie, because Altman is not bitter. He's been playing his game, by his own rules, and he's won.
I only wonder one thing. This movie means Altman will have a much bigger budget and more clout when he directs his next movie. I wonder if he has had something specific in mind.
* Explanation on request
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Michael Tolkin
Griffin Mill : Tim Robbins
June Gudmundsdottir : Greta Scacchi
Walter Stuckel : Fred Ward
Detective Susan Avery : Whoopi Goldberg
Larry Levy : Peter Gallagher
Joel Levison : Brion James
Bonnie Sherow : Cynthia Stevenson
David Kahane : Vincent D'Onofrio
Andy Civella : Dean Stockwell
Tom Oakley : Richard E. Grant
Larry Levy : Sydney Pollack
Detective DeLongpre : Lyle Lovett