No one was better at wry ensemble comedies that gathered dozens of stars in one place for sprawling sociological satire than Robert Altman. But of all his merciless ensemble comedies (from Nashville to A Wedding to Pret-a-Porter to Gosford Park), The Player is the funniest, the most accessible, and probably the bleakest. Here, the claustrophobic setting is the bubble of Hollywood, whose denizens can’t conceive of life except as described in movie terms, where everyone is for sale, and where happily-ever-after is the only permissible way for things to turn out. The title character is a studio executive (Tim Robbins) who kills a screenwriter and steals his girl (Greta Scacchi), but the actual targets are the countless players who make up this unreal world. (Among the 70 or so stars with cameos as themselves are Burt Reynolds, Cher, Jack Lemmon, Malcolm McDowell, and especially Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, who are awfully good sports.) As a storyteller, Altman was never more on fire than when biting the hand that fed him; as a nice irony, the movie earned him a slew of prizes and made him bankable once again in Hollywood. No wonder he complained, years later, that he’d been too easy on Hollywood in The Player.
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