Criterion // 1985 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 14th, 2011
The story of life, death, sex and the universe...relatively speaking.
"Knowledge isn't truth. It's just mindless agreement. You agree with me, I agree with someone else -- we all have knowledge. We haven't come any closer to the truth. You can never understand anything by agreeing, by making definitions. Only by turning over the possibilities. That's called thinking. If I say I know, I stop thinking. As long as I keep thinking, I come to understand. That way, I might approach some truth."
Their real names are never spoken aloud, and the credits only refer to them as Actress (Theresa Russell, The Last Tycoon), Ballplayer (Gary Busey, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Professor (Michael Emil), and Senator (Tony Curtis, Some Like it Hot). However, these people look, sound, and act remarkably like Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, and Joe McCarthy. Over the course of a long night in a hotel in 1954 New York, the lives of these four individuals intersect in a variety of unusual and intriguing ways.
There are moments when Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance feels less like a film than a cinematic smorgasbord intended to inspire endlessly ambitious term papers. There is so much Meaning stuffed into every scene of the film, as Roeg uses the meeting of these cultural icons to launch an exploration of celebrity, post-war nuclear paranoia, sex, power, relativity, isolation, and so many other subjects. Even Roeg admits that most viewers are unlikely to catch everything he's thrown into the mix: "Those who understand the significance of one thing might not understand the significance of another," he cheerfully suggests in a new interview included on this disc. While there are oodles of fascinating subtext to dig through, I have mixed feelings about Insignificance on a surface level.
The basic appeal of the film is the premise: the lives of four incredibly well-known cultural icons cross paths over the course of a single night. It has fun with an assortment of "what if" scenarios that range from thoroughly credible (such as when DiMaggio angrily expresses his frustration with Monroe's behavior, or when McCarthy attempts to procure a political confession from Einstein) to wild fantasy (such as when Monroe explains the theory of relativity to Einstein and makes a giddy show out of it, or when McCarthy turns a meeting with Monroe into an opportunity for sexual blackmail). There are some thoughtful moments in which these icons draw surprising elements out of each other; the scenes between Einstein and Monroe in particular inspire some compelling dialogue.
However, it's difficult to really get lost in this particular setting, as Roeg seems too intent on reminding the viewer of the work that he's doing rather than in immersing us in this night of speculative drama. Some of the flashback sequences presented (while admittedly working to make the film a good deal more cinematic) feel like heavy-handed attempts to spell out some of the movie's themes, and the blend of period tunes with anachronistic drum machines proves more distracting than thought-provoking. Still, it should be noted that Roeg's wilder cinematic instincts seem considerably restrained in contrast to many of his films; most of Insignificance is relatively straightforward stuff. The opening credits symbolize this nicely: a cheesy pop song plays for a while, and when Roeg's name appears the tune fades into experimental electronic sound design. Roeg adds the occasional unexpected flash of artful angles into the mix.
The performances vary in quality, but the most problematic turn comes from Roeg's wife Theresa Russell. While Roeg insists that this woman is simply "Actress" and not necessarily Marilyn Monroe, Russell's attempt at looking like and imitating Monroe just doesn't work, and it becomes difficult to accept the character as a result. Monroe was not one of cinema's great actresses, but she was unquestionably inimitable (a fact which hasn't stopped countless actresses from attempting to imitate her, anyway). Busey's angry, jealous, jittery DiMaggio isn't a whole lot like Joltin' Joe either, but Busey fares better simply because DiMaggio's mannerisms aren't nearly as well-known as Monroe's.
On the positive side, Michael Emil creates a sensitive, soft-spoken Einstein that manages to transcend the usual cartoonish imitations of the great scientist. His childlike joy as he observes Monroe's antics is splendid, and Emil fares well during his later scenes of emotional torment. Best of all is Tony Curtis, delivering a sweaty, badgering portrait of McCarthy that's precisely right. Curtis brings a movie-star swagger to the role and nearly overwhelms the other players when he shares the screen with them (an intentional effect, no doubt), and also brings a fascinating haul of Hollywood history with him. After all, Curtis acted opposite Monroe and shared a famous love scene with her in Some Like it Hot, and now we have Curtis as Joe McCarthy in a considerably less charming love scene with Theresa Russell as Monroe. It's a striking moment out of time, to be sure.
Insignificance arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. The image is quite sharp and detail is pristine, though only during a handful of moments does the film offer some really striking visuals (though Roeg does manage to avoid the stagebound feel that so many play adaptations suffer from). There's a small amount of color bleeding on fleeting occasions, but nothing significant. Depth is impressive during the darker scenes, too. Audio is less impressive, as some of the music (by Stanley Myers and a very young Hans Zimmer) sounds a little beat-up, but the dialogue is clear and the light sound design is perfectly acceptable for a film made more than 25 years ago. Supplements include an interview with Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas (13 minutes), an interview with editor Tony Lawson (15 minutes), a vintage featurette shot on the set of the film (14 minutes), a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Chuck Stephens and a reprinted exchange between Roeg and screenwriter Terry Johnson.
I'm not convinced that Insignificance is a masterpiece, nor am I willing to simply write it off as, uh, an insignificant experiment. It's a purposeful film worth considering, but it unfortunately manages to keep the viewer at a distance. It's mid-level Roeg at best. Criterion's release is solid, though a little thin in the supplemental department.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R