I’ve been aware for years of this movie’s reputation as “that X-rated Richard Dreyfuss film” but until I spun it up on a whim via Netflix — which is streaming a 720p encode of MGM’s surprisingly nice HD transfer — I didn’t realize that it was also a very early Bob Hoskins film, nor that Veronica Cartwright co-starred. Further, if you had told me that Jessica Harper (now of Suspiria fame) spent most of the film’s second half topless, well, I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken me this long to find time for it.
How’s the film? Surprisingly OK! Writer-director John Byrum was in his 20s when he whipped up the story of a washed-up silent film director (Dreyfuss) in the early talkie era who lives as a Hollywood shut-in, shooting rough hardcore porn shorts with his cheerfully dope-addled girlfriend (Cartwright). His boss is a shifty wannabe mogul (Hoskins) who shows up on set unannounced, with an aspiring starlet (Harper) in tow. The setting is Old Hollywood, but the film is very much a product of the 1970s — you’d never mistake it for a film from any other decade.
The film’s ostensible subject is the muse and the creative impulse, and Byrum makes much of how Harper’s character does and doesn’t inspire the benumbed filmmaker. But Byrum’s a pretty young guy, and he doesn’t invest the material with the appropriate gravity and/or melancholy. Inserts is more interesting as a self-reflexive text (and dark satire) on the movie industry’s depiction of sex on screen in the early years of the MPAA ratings system. There is a genuine erotic charge, too, as the back-and-forth between Dreyfuss and Harper over the removal of articles of clothing takes on the quality of a high-level diplomatic negotiation between superpowers. A bit of sexism may be evident in the film’s conception (both women are nude while neither Dreyfuss nor Hoskins is required to go full-frontal, although hired dick Stephen Davies displays ass and scrotum in the film’s most explicit moments) but the use of a line like “unwrap the meat” as a command to disrobe indicates a film well aware of gender privilege and its implications.
There’s genuine wit here, too, and while I fault Byrum for the budget-saving tactic of setting the entire two-hour film in a single room that could be shot on an English soundstage, I have to credit him with going five-for-five in the charming-performances department. Inserts is a little pretentious and it gets a little sluggish and sometimes a little silly, but it’s sexy and odd and earnest, and I say that earns it three stars.