A lot has been said about the metafictional genius of Robert Altman's The Player, in which the Hollywood producer Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is unwittingly involved in a very Hollywood-style story of murder, sexual intrigue, and duplicity as his career disintegrates around him and he receives threatening postcards from a writer whose script he rejected. The film announces its intent with its opening, a virtuoso tracking shot that lasts several minutes, beginning within an office and slowly panning out and around the entire grounds of a studio lot. This is a stunning maneuver, introducing the large cast in walking cameos as they stroll by the camera's path, conversations drifting in and out of range at various points. Moreover, Altman has these characters discussing the use of just this kind of device in other films, from the opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope with its unbroken ten-minute takes. As these characters themselves say, such devices introduce the entire movie in microcosm before the credits have even finished rolling, and Altman sets out to do just that, establishing not only the setting and characters but the way in which the constant flow of inane chatter and deal-making patter constitute the reality of behind-the-scenes Hollywood.
If this intro and the non-stop flow of Hollywood stars flooding the film with cameos telegraphs the metafictional, satirical intent of The Player, the soul of the film is contained in a single richly layered scene at a fundraising party where Mill gives a speech. Speaking to a room of stars and producers (including Cher, the only one dressed in red at a black and white affair), Mill praises the studio system for keeping alive the idea that movies are art by donating prints of a few dozen old classics to a film center. He lambastes the moviegoing public and the press alike for failing to understand art, for wanting only crass entertainment, while maintaining that it is up to Hollywood itself, and especially the producers, to deliver great art to the people. He ends on a passionate note, emphatically declaring: "Movies are art!" Altman cuts in for a closeup at this point, capturing the genuine sincerity of Mill (and the earnest glint in Robbins' pale, expressive blue eyes): he radiates an intense belief in what he's saying. It's a powerful, even moving speech for those who love movies and take it for granted that they are art, and one senses that for a moment, Mill is speaking Altman's mind; the director has momentarily taken over his character like a puppet and is ventriloquizing through him. It is also an extraordinarily complex and ironic scene, though, mainly because despite Mill's apparent sincerity and Altman's obvious underlining of his words, there is little evidence that Mill pays any more than lip service to what he's saying. If he truly believes what he says, he does so in the abstract, as a concept divorced from his actual practices in the movie business in practice he does everything he can to smother the art in movies, to produce the generic entertainment he rails against, though in fairness he is not quite as mercenary as the young upstart Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), who thinks that producers can replace writers altogether in the Hollywood assembly line.
This speech is also undercut by the fact that hardly anyone is listening to Mill. Altman cuts around the room from one table of celebs to another, showing the various actors and actresses chatting with one another, hobnobbing and ignoring the producer's words. One wonders if, when they agreed to these cameo appearances, the stars realized that they'd be depicted as ignoring a speech about the importance of cinematic artistry or if they'd even understand if they did. The constant interplay between star personae and screen characters encourages these kinds of metafictional musings. One of the funniest things about Altman's decision to include so many cameos is that one is never sure, when a new star appears, if they're playing themselves or if they're meant to be an actual character in the film. OK, so Sydney Pollack and Whoopie Goldberg are characters (Mill's attorney and the detective investigating him, respectively), but Jeff Goldblum, Anjelica Huston and John Cusack are all going by their own names as Hollywood stars. The film's metafictional slippage creates and revels in this uncertainty, crafting a world in which some of these stars are playing parts, while others ostensibly represent who they really are. Altman encourages this star-spotting, peppering his crowd scenes with recognizable faces who he occasionally points out, enhancing the impression that this satire is sharply pointed at the real Hollywood apparatus these people are a part of.
Mill's speech also highlights one of the film's key themes, the gulf that exists between modern Hollywood and its vision of itself, a vision largely crafted in an era when its artistry and its commercialism were inextricably intertwined rather than in competition with one another. There are constant references to the past, both verbally and in the continuous use of images from Hollywood's past: posters for noirs like Laura hang on Mill's office walls, and the mysterious figure who threatens him sends him a postcard promotional still of Bogart pointing a gun. Mill has more of a connection to the past, and to the non-American cinema, than most of the film's characters; he admires Umberto De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Tod Browning's Freaks, whereas other characters are oblivious to films outside of their immediate cultural sphere. In that long tracking shot opening, one producer keeps citing Touch of Evil as if it's the only film he ever saw, while he repeatedly says he has no idea about anything made outside of the US. Even Mill, though, is limited in his knowledge he fails to recognize the name of Joe Gillis, the murdered writer played by William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and his idealistic image of Hollywood's past is in direct contrast to the debased system he's a part of in the present. In mercilessly delving into the business of making movies, The Player makes it difficult for Hollywood types like Mill to rest on the laurels of the Hollywood Golden Age; Mill's contention that (Hollywood) movies are art holds some water for noirs and Bogie adventure flicks, but it's a lot harder to keep a straight face when he seems to be referring to his studio's endless stream of mass-marketed pablum, their plots massaged and reworked on the evidence of test screenings.
As these themes percolate and develop, Altman patiently weaves a thriller plot into the satire, as well as an increasingly steamy romance between Mill and the girlfriend (Greta Scacchi) of a writer (Vincent D'Onofrio) who had an antagonistic relationship with Mill. The whole thing is brilliantly concocted so that it's barely obvious, until the very end, just how neatly Mill's story reads like a Hollywood genre piece, with all the necessary sex, violence, and emotional mood swings required to punch it up. Even Mill himself doesn't realize it until he has the whole sordid story, in barely veiled form, read to him over the phone as a pitch, complete with the obligatory happy ending. The final act of the film, presented as a flash-forward set one year after the main events of the story, completes Mill's arc by tying up all loose ends and providing him with his promised and utterly improbable happy ending, an ending that rhymes off the similar last-minute turn-around in a movie Mill was producing, a death penalty drama that was meant to have a grim, "realistic" denouement, but is turned into a high-octane thrill ride in the final minutes due to the whims of a test audience. One wonders what that same audience would have made of Altman's finale, which on the surface makes use of the conventions of the happy ending only to draw attention to them and satirize them, and which externalizes the script itself by putting its too-tidy resolution and literary ironies right out there for anyone to see (and to second-guess). The most clever aspect of Altman's film is its auto-critique of its own cleverness.