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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Cynical Take on Cinema Sleaze

Well, better late than never.

"The Player," Robert Altman's celebrated film of 1992 -- yes, 1992 -- is making its English-language Moscow debut this weekend at the Americom House of Cinema. The satirical story of an ethically-challenged movie executive enmeshed in a web of studio-infighting -- and caught in the cross-hairs of a murder investigation -- "The Player" provides a panorama of the cynical sleaze behind the gauzy glowing images that fill our theater screens. It also offers a dizzying array of cameo appearances by "real" stars "playing" themselves while mingling with "characters" running improvised riffs off the loosely structured script.

This blending of the artificial nature of Hollywood's reality with the gritty realism of cinema artifice is one of the many disturbing pleasures of a pleasurably disturbing film. Who is "acting" in this imagined story, and who isn't? Whom among these famous figures are we supposed to pretend is someone else, and whom are we to take as "merely" themselves? The bland and easy power of celebrity -- "Look! That's Cher! Is she playing a role? What does it matter? It's Cher!" -- often overwhelms the more humble, difficult work of creating an imagined world, a labor that every audience shares with the artists. In a movie whose purpose is to skewer the soul-withering forces of big money and fatuous fame, these funhouse distortions of the traditional understanding between audience and artist are surely deliberate, and most effective.

Still, the play's the thing, and "The Player" has more than enough traditional plot to draw in even the most bug-eyed celebrity gawker. Tim Robbins stars as Griffin Mill, a studio hotshot in trouble after a string of box-office failures. Already beset by smiling, unctuous enemies out to undermine him, Mill is now being harassed by a would-be screenwriter to whom he had given the brush-off. A meeting with the writer -- a "real" artist who despises Mill as the epitome of Hollywood corruption -- turns traumatic, and the executive soon finds himself fencing with police on top of all his other troubles.

That's the plot, but this is Altman, so the emphasis is on the quirky performances he coaxes from his stars: the off-hand moments and telling asides, the portentous scraps of conversation and the sudden, brief eruptions of vibrant, mysterious mood. Robbins is in fine form, part snake-charmer as he closes deals, part charming snake as he parries the cops. Yet he brings a sense of likeable vulnerability to the despicable Mill, winning our sympathy against our better judgment.

His good work is well supported by the always enjoyable Fred Ward, by Lyle Lovett, the high-haired singer whose off-kilter looks Altman loves to employ to striking effect, and by Richard E. Grant, hilarious here as an idealistic director whose crusade for cinematic integrity leads to surprising results.

"The Player" is based on a novel by Michael Tolkin, and it is one of the many ironies surrounding the production that the film -- which was also scripted and co-produced by Tolkin -- actually softens the scathing attack on Hollywood contained in the original text. Ironic too that the film, which despite the pulled punches still gives the modern movie biz a good pummeling, restored Altman to the Hollywood elite after years in exile, scrounging meager funds to scrape together low-budget independent films. Because this assault on the studios did such good box office, Altman became a "player" on the scene once again, lionized by the studio chiefs who, as the movie itself shows, will overlook anything -- mockery, corruption, even murder -- as long as the bottom line is amply served.

Many of the movie's hip references seem dated now. But if such media-savvy irony has a short shelf-life, true cynicism, laced with mordant wit, stays vibrant and dangerous longer than uranium. And it is this kind of satire -- descended straight from the still-biting Aristophanes and Petronius -- that really drives "The Player," and makes it worth the money you'll pay to the corrupt system that produced it.

"The Player" is now showing at the Americom House of Cinema at the Radisson-Slavjanskaya Hotel. Call 941-8890 for showtimes.