Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writer: Terry Johnson
Cinematographer: Peter Hannan
Stars: Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey
Studio/Running Time: Criterion, 108 min.
What happens when Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einsten, Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio meet in the same hotel room? While this sounds like the setup to a bad a joke, it’s also the premise of Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, adapted from a play of the same name by Terry Johnson. Although none of the characters are named, the film plays on our obvious perception of who these people are and what they should be doing, such that its plot falls out naturally as each character performs the way we’d imagine they would. McCarthy tries to get Einstein to testify, but he’d rather work on his unified field theory until Monroe arrives in an attempt to seduce him, which leads to DiMaggio trying to find her. All of these larger-than-life personalities clash against each other and most of the picture is simply an answer to that first hypothetical quesition.
Unfortunately, Insignifcance’s screenplay doesn’t go beyond these surface characterizations and rather than trying to turn these images of celebrities into real people, it’s happy to leave us with two-dimensional simulacrums. None of its characters have any sort of inner life and their motivations are simply to fulfill the goals of the screenplay. This isn’t helped by the actors’ performances, either, and the four leads seem to be engaging in a competition as to who can play their part furthest from their inspiration. Suffice to say, Gary Busey is no Joe DiMaggio.
The other issue with the script is that it’s so clearly made for a play rather than a movie, and as such it sets nearly all of Insignificance’s action in one room. Roeg is a visionary stylist and one of the most flamboyant directors in the history of British cinema, but there’s only so much he can do with a single room. The film’s best moments come from the small points of visual flare Roeg gives the picture through flashbacks, cross-cutting and a special effects set piece towards the end of Insignificance, but his concern for style over acting isn’t a good fit for the material.
There are some ideas that simply works better in one medium than another, and it’s not difficult to imagine the play Insignificance was adapted from being significantly better than the film. But with Roeg’s ostentatious film direction its points become heavy-handed while its characters are endlessly flattened. His version is a highly stylized picture that’s intermittently fascinating with some keen observations about ‘50s America and the concept of celebrity, but it’s nonetheless kind of a mess.