Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Virtually every story ever told begins with the “what if?” premise. The open-ended question asked starts the storyteller off and running. When asked where they get their ideas, most writers will generally nod towards the universal inspiration of “what if?”. In the case of Insignificance, director Nicholas Roeg takes Terry Johnson’s dramatic “what if?” from the stage and brings it to life on screen: “What if, on one night in 1953, the destinies of four major historical players collided? What would happen if Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joseph McCarthy all wound up in the same hotel room, albeit at different times, on the same night?” Johnson’s answer lies in the title, to wit “nothing of importance”. Which is, of course, the answer to the cosmic joke, “Why are we here and what are we to do?”

Though a disclaimer insists that the characters in this drama are fictional, and are only referred to by their titles, the fact remains that The Actress (Theresa Russell in perhaps her best performance—and you can take that for what its worth considering her usual wooden appearances), bored of “having her skirt blown up around her ears” while shooting a scene for her new movie, flees her producers and her husband, makes a stop at a five-and-dime store, then visits the hotel suite of The Professor (Michael Emil). In town to attend a peace conference, The Professor has already received a visitor that night, the bullying, possibly-psychotic and certainly power-mad Senator (Tony Curtis), who wants the esteemed scientist and “father of the H-Bomb” to attend his Committee’s hearing the next morning and name names. Angered by this encounter, the bushy-haired scientist is further bewildered by the appearance of the Actress, who barges in and insists on explaining the Theory of Relativity to him, using toy trains, soldiers, flashlights and balloons. She wants to prove to him that she knows the theory, even if she doesn’t quite understand it. She wants to prove to him that she’s more than something to gawk at. Though at first, until she points to a billboard on the building across from him sporting her image, he has no idea who she is.

In the meantime, her husband, the Ballplayer, already jealous of the crowd of bystanders who gathered to watch the goddess and her flowing skirt, drinks in a bar and stares at her naked body displayed on a calendar. He tracks her down, invades the hotel room, confronts her and scoffs as he listens to a conversation she has with the Professor about the “shape of space”. “It’s round,” he insists. “Everything real is round.” It’s a matter he’s sure about. Something over which he has control. He thinks. The Actress won’t leave with him. She wants a child and so does he, but she can’t give him one. The Ballplayer tries to explain the nature of fame to the famous scientists. “I’m on a bubblegum card one pack out of five,” he says, flipping away a card not bearing his face. “That’s famous. But I’m sure people know who you are too.”

Outside, the Senator rages, obsesses over images of The Actress, unaware that she’s just floors away from him. His own power is slipping—the Committee hearings will be over soon. He needs the Professor to justify his own past witch hunt. In the midst of all of this, haunted by images of the destruction brought about by his own work, the Professor obsesses over his theory of the shape of the universe, scrawling on endless pages of paper, wondering if he has sinned in anyone’s eyes other than his own.

Insignificance is, at all times, wonderful, baffling, frustrating and delightful. It’s one of those movies where the destination isn’t all that important. Anyone vaguely familiar with the “fictional” personalities know what will happen after this hotel room is vacated by all parties: the four people will return to their lives, separately of each other. At least one life will end tragically. At least one will not end soon enough. And their meeting in this room matters not one single bit. Nothing changes because of the meeting, the course of their lives is not altered a hair and nothing is solved or resolved. It’s a thought exercise captured on film and nothing more, but the performances and their chemistry is magical.

Even if you  know Monroe’s life to a ‘T’ or can speak fluent Einsteinian history, there are moments that will positively delight you in their eccentricity here. The lengthy scene where The Actress explains The Professor’s Theory of Relativity is so light and playful that it ranks, in my eyes anyway, one of the most perfect scenes ever captured. Though Busey doesn’t exactly conjure up a perfect DiMaggio, the energy and (yes, surprisingly) subtlety he brings to the role is all his own. Emil and Russell are perfect and Curtis is the perfect villain—someone who exists for the greater good and has taken on the mantle of villain because he has to, his beliefs are that strong, and he will never, ever, understand a nonconformist like the Professor. (Headier, too, is the single scene he shares with Russell where he mistakes her for a prostitute in Marilyn gear, and you realize that, of them all, Curtis is the only one in the film who actually knew Monroe and actually seems a bit haunted by Russell’s transformation himself.)

The story, of course, never really goes anywhere. The ending sequence, while dramatic and disturbing, amounts to nothing either. But in this case, it’s purely about the journey. It’s a delightful “what if?” story at times fun and tragic. And it’s a shame that it isn’t readily available on DVD for everyone to see. It can be found, but it has to be hunted for. But it’s worth the search, if only to spur on more “what if’s?” for the viewer.


  1. Your "as if" review gets a "Fascinating!." But your describing Theresa Russell's appearances as "usually wooden" gets an "Aw c'mon!"

    I think this bad rap might have started with a female critic who only wished she could have the beauty and talent of Theresa Russell. Reviewers and critics of some credibility give her high marks. Roger Ebert noted that she's the actress to call when the part requires great skill combined with great courage.

    "Insignificance" is one of my favorite films. Its comedic aspect is a wry commentary on "civilized" life. Note the bemused reactions of the Native American elevator attendant (Will Sampson) to the other characters.

    My field is physics; and I was particularly taken with artists who could pull off Marilyn Monroe "explaining" relativity theory to Albert Einstein.

    As far as I know, "Insignificance" is now readily available on both VHS and DVD.

    Jerry Caplin

  2. Thanks, Jerry!

    The VHS I stumble over every now and then. Both editions of the DVD are out of print, though one is a little more attainable than the other.

    I've never been a Russell fan. Had nothing to do with another reviewer, I just always found her to be stiff and distant with this as the only exception. Roeg isn't the warmest and fuzziest of directors, either, of course.