170) Inserts (1974) Dir: John Byrum Date Released: February 1976 Date Seen: June 7th, 2009 Rating: 4/5
Inserts, writer/director John Byrum's pitch-black comedy and minor historical flop, is perhaps a little too mischievous and cunning for its own good. Its inevitable failure is naively credited with being the straw that broke the camel's back for major Hollywood studios interested in making X-rated pictures, as if there needed to be just one more and this was it. Who would've thought that that would happen, what with studio executives putting their expectations on a work this blisteringly bitter.
The most telling sign of why Byrum's ode to pantomime failed is that he does a little too much of a good job keeping us guessing whether what we're looking at is supposed to be funny or Dramatic. If you took the dramatic template of Sunset Boulevard and overlayed it with the cynicism of In a Lonely Place and liberally added the withering grotesque physical comedy of All That Jazz, you'd have something like Inserts.
The Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss), a former silent filmmaking wunderkind, is not just washed-up, he's drowning himself in bottle after bottle of cognac that looks disturbingly like Heinz Ketchup. To get his, pardon the pun, spirits back up (did I mention that he's impotent?), he decides to make silent pornos starring Harlene (Veronica Cartwright), a heroin addict and the woman he may or may not love and Rex the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies), a dense schnook with a big dick and stars in his eyes.
This pathetic predicament is hardly one that Byrum expects us to take seriously. The comedy of The Boy Wonder's desperation stems from the cruelly ironic realization that, while he's convinced that he knows how low he's sunk, he has no clue. He sneers at Rex as if he were just a mindless meat puppet that doesn't know the first thing about how to get ahead as an artist or an actor, but then he gets a mad look in his eyes when he walks him and Harlene through a scene of hysterically wild and frenetic humping.
During The Boy Wonder's fits of artistic clarity, the soft buzzing of jackhammers emanating from outside of his house is momentarily interrupted by a mad whirlwind of bongo drums. He dismounts his camera from its tripod, hoping to accurately capture the shrieking display of gyrating limbs in front of him. The fact that he thinks he could keep shooting the movie with Harlene even after she abruptly O.D.s on smack is a patent sign that this man, our fallen hero no less, is not a strictly tragic protagonist.
Only the deceptive naivete of young Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), his latest piece of "meat," can drag The Boy Wonder out of his mad stupor. She walks in with a goo-goo doll expression and a pout of "I want to see it all, I want to do it all" sticking to her sullen lips. She protests that she's not just a "silly little girl" and proves it with the alacrity she doffs her clothes and puts up with The Boy Wonder's desperately crude demands--"I wanna do a beaver shot," he bellows trying to mask his fear of her unperturbed calm and failing miserably.
Then again, even The Boy Wonder's relationship with Cathy isn't strictly sincere: as he sneers, "Nothing pure, old sport, is ever easy." Inserts knowingly confronts us with its artifice, beginning with a pan shot of the bed, flanked by towering stage lights, where Harlene and Rex go at it. The bed's just the most important stage in the film but hardly the only one.
The Boy Wonder's redemption through the arms of Cathy, the quick study that knows how to make his tent rise, looks like a Hollywood ending wrapped up in an unconventional package--fallen boy meets girl, fucks girl, regains his mojo and gains a partner in crime in the process. Byrum only teases us with that kind of ending, having The Boy Wonder dismiss the plaintive knocks of a young Clark Gable, who in this film is an eager fan of his work and hence just the rising star he needs to hitch onto to get back on top. But he's not. Instead, he just Gable knock and knock. With a toss of his head, The Boy Wonder moans angrily, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me," a line finally worthy of Dreyfuss' accomplished eye-rolling.
Byrum's love of artifice, which oddly enough results in a deliriously stagey performance from Bob Hoskins as Big Mac, The Boy Wonder's seedy manager, but pitch-perfect work from his co-stars, is too much and that's his point. The Boy Wonder's frustration with the body language in film and sex in real-life, if the too can be separated, is just about the only thing that he takes seriously, making his softly lit, close-up-friendly sexual breakthrough with Cathy a little too easy an answer for a film that sneers at the concept of sincerity. Taken alone, the attitude Byrum infuses Dreyfuss and Harlene's scathing dialogue during the the film's suckerpunch of an opener suggests an artistic temperament that, like The Boy Wonder, has seen it all and refuses to try to put real feelings on the line.
Byrum accordingly sacrifices nothing and remarkably succeeds all the more because of it. The fact that The Boy Wonder can so quickly shrug off his post-coital victory is what makes his painfully drawn-out seduction so winning. There's no hope to be had in that ending for him or us, who are by that point left wondering why Byrum's unrelenting acrimony is warranted. This may be one of the blackest comedy of them all.