The first hurdle to get over when approaching writer-director John Byrum’s strange little movie Inserts is trying to understand how the thing got made. Setting aside the presence of leading man Richard Dreyfuss, who was on the rise in the early ’70s thanks to American Graffiti (1973), everything about Inserts screams “uncommercial.” The piece unfolds like a play, with real-time interaction between a small set of characters sprawling across a single location for 117 minutes; the dense dialogue occasionally tips over into pretention; and the film is filled with sex on every level, so even though the depiction of physical encounters is not explicit, Inserts borders on porn just for the sheer amount of sexual content. (The MPAA slapped the picture with an X rating during its original release.) Put succinctly, Inserts is a North American movie that feels like a European art-house picture, and on top of everything else, it’s dark as hell. Therefore, asking how the movie came into being is futile. It was the ’70s, man.
Byrum takes viewers on a unique journey, although chances are many viewers give up before the trip reaches its destination—the weirdness factor is undoubtedly a turn-off for some. That said, Inserts is full of intellectual and visceral rewards for those who lock into Byrum’s bizarre frequency. Inserts is a movie about movies, but it’s also about ambition, artistic hubris, emotional paralysis, manipulation, and power—all of which are viewed through the prism of carnal knowledge.
Set in the 1930s, Inserts takes place in the mansion of Boy Wonder (Dreyfuss), a movie director whose career peaked in the silent era. Boy Wonder drove himself out of the film business with diva behavior, so now he makes his living by shooting stag reels in his own home—a nice arrangement, seeing as how Boy Wonder has become a virtual recluse. Then as now, the porn business attracts damaged souls, so Boy Wonder’s cast members for the shoot depicted in Inserts are Harlene (Veronica Cartwright), a heroin-addicted former mainstream movie actress, and “Rex, the Wonder Dog” (Stephen Davies), a dimwit stud with violent tendencies. Underwriting the whole affair is Big Mac (Bob Hoskins), a crude gangster who hits the scene accompanied by Cathy (Jessica Harper), an intense striver determined to break into movies no matter what it takes. As the story progresses, Boy Wonder plays mind games on his actors to get work out of them. Later, when tragedy strikes, Boy Wonder himself becomes the victim of mind games.
Even though Inserts is in many ways a film of ideas, giving away too much of the plot would be a disservice to the piece, because the layers of character that get revealed with every plot twist add to the richness of Byrum’s deranged tapestry. Every character is a lost soul of some kind, so watching them grasp for solid ground makes for fascinating sport. Not everything in Inserts works, and the perverse nature of the material ensures that cynical viewers will find the piece more credible than optimistic ones. Still, this is singular work fueled by passionate acting.
Carwright nails a poignant mixture of naïveté and world-weariness, while Harper presents a character who seems like a skin-trade riff on All About Eve’s Eve Harrington—the hungry young thing without a conscience. Hoskins is effectively boarish and frightening, while Davies personifies the confusion of a man unable to grasp the full dimensions of his own circumstances. As for Dreyfuss, he’s incandescent, the complicated and precise nuances of his performance mitigated only by the actor’s overpowering self-satisfaction. (Few stars seem to relish their own skills as obviously as Dreyfuss does, though a strong argument could be made that arrogance was the perfect choice of emotional though-line for Boy Wonder.) Overall, Inserts is a deeply odd movie, given the juxtaposition of its lofty literary style and its sleazy subject matter. Grim and insightful and macabre and stylish and surprising, it’s a high-wire act performed in a sewer.