Inserts (John Byrum, 1974)
Neither the onscreen credits, either main or close, nor IMDB mentions whether John Byrum’s Inserts is based on a play. If it isn’t, and it was never adapted into one, I think Byrum may have missed a fine opportunity here; the entire thing takes place on a single set, with five characters who move in and out at various times (roughly half of the film takes place between just two of the five). It’s very play-like, and it’s got that heightened sense of artificiality that says “hey, I’m a play!” (a sixth character is mentioned a number of times, for example, as being just off stage right, erm, sorry, outside the front door, but we never see him). I’m sure that annoys the living daylights out of some people. I, on the other hand, eat it up. And with that sentence, yes, most of you can probably stop reading this review and know exactly whether or not I’m going to recommend you see this or not.
If you’d never heard of Inserts almost forty years later and are coming to it fresh, as I did a few weeks back, you probably stuck it on your Netflix Instant Streaming queue (if you’ve never heard of it at all, sorry—it disappeared from Netflix Instant Streaming on 1May2013, though it may of course return at some point) for exactly the same reason I did—“holy crap, Richard Dreyfuss and Bob Hoskins made an X-rated movie?” You’re durned tootin’ they did! And for the most part, it’s a phenomenal one. The plot: a silent film director, only referred to in the movie as Boy Wonder (Dreyfuss), has failed with the advent of the talkie, and fallen into a deep depression, to the point where he is no longer even concerned that his palatial mansion is slated for demolition for an upcoming freeway. He spends his time making silent stag reels for Big Mac (Hoskins), doing all the filming in his living room. As we open, he’s filming a scene (we see a piece of the finished movie in Inserts‘ opening sequence, being screened to a jeering audience) between his girlfriend/main actress Harlene (Alien‘s Veronica Cartwright) and an actor we are introduced to as Rex, the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies, who would work with Byrum again a decade later on The Razor’s Edge). Big Mac, with his fiancee Cathy Cake (Suspiria‘s Jessica Harper in her first feature appearance), shows up to gripe at Boy Wonder and deliver Harlene’s payment, a dose of heroin. She heads off to the bathroom to dose herself while Boy Wonder and Mac argue, with Rex throwing in an interjection once in a while…
…and while most reviews (and Netflix’s description) continue on—because the next event really sets the scene for the latter half of the film, which is where the plot really kicks into gear—I would consider that a spoiler, and thus will stop there, but trust me, that’s when things get interesting. It is in most ways an exceptional film. I’ve been wrestling with whether to give it three and a half or four stars for days thanks to its two weak points. One is the already-mentioned opening sequence’s jeering audience, who are annoying from moment one, but thankfully only appear during that sequence. The second is Jessica Harper’s performance. Not all of it, but there are moments where I think she’s supposed to come off as droll but instead comes off as wooden. Definitely not the intention given some of those scenes. While compared to the rest of the movie those end up being minor, they’re the kind of minor that gets under the skin and itches sporadically throughout the movie, so I did end up shaving off the half-star, but will still give it the four-star enthusiastic recommendation. While the MPAA did not budge when the movie was submitted for re-rating in 1996, branding it with an NC-17, I think that has far less to do with the sex in the film than it does with the crude remarks made by that annoying audience. (Like I said, they get under the skin, even days after watching the movie.) Even if you’re the uncomfortable type when it comes to onscreen sex, I don’t think there’s much here that’s going to rile you (and all of that is softcore); this movie is far more about the dynamics of power as they fluctuate between these characters than it is about Boy Wonder’s current profession. A lovely little thing, and a barrel of fun. *** ½
I cannot believe the trailer is not on Youtube. Here’s a DVD feature with Byrum, Davies, and Cartwright talking about the film’s rating.