Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss) has fallen a long way from the heights of the big time and bright lights he used to enjoy. He was a hotshot film director in the silent era, but with the introduction of the talkies he is reduced to making stag films in a corner of his house, a home he refuses to leave if he can at all help it. Today, as he plays a tune on the piano his introspection is broken by the arrival of his leading lady, Harlene (Veronica Cartwright), and she is as chatty as he is reticent. She informs him that up and coming star Clark Gable thinks he's a genius and wishes to work with him - will this bring him out of his shell?
A strange film about how movies are better than real life, this could have taken the age old tack of presenting showbiz in its vampiric form, draining the life out of its participants, yet here it's only the promise of making films that keeps its characters going. Inserts received terrible reviews and not much business on its initial release - perhaps the critics and audiences were put off by the frank dialogue and explicit air of sexual decadence, but it has found fans willing to stick up for it as the years have gone on, and it does have an odd fascination.
It's the fascination of seeing people sink to new depths in their lives, but despite being about half an hour too long, it does sustain its hold over the viewer. It was written and directed by John Byrum, and his take on Hollywood is something akin to the old joke about the man at the circus who cleans up after the elephants; after complaining about it his friend suggests he get another job only to be asked incredulously, "What? And leave showbusiness?" All the Inserts characters are on the bottom rung of the ladder, but its gazing at the stars above that keeps them going.
However, it's Boy Wonder who has savoured the sweet smell of success, as opposed to the others who aspire to it. Gable is never seen, but we hear him ringing the doorbell even as Boy Wonder is reluctant to answer it, as if opportunity knocking once more is not something he wants to hear, preferring self-pity. Meanwhile the porn film shoot goes on, the director treating it with far more creativity than it deserves, with Harlene and another aspiring actor known only as Rex the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies in performance that makes you wonder why we didn't hear of him more).
Unfortunately for Boy Wonder and his bootlegger-turned-producer Big Mac (Bob Hoskins in the first big role of his career), their opus looks to be sabotaged when after filming a few scenes Harlene wanders upstairs to the bathroom with a syringe of heroin and never comes down. So who can they find to do the inserts? It just so happens that Big Mac has brought along Miss Cake (Jessica Harper, very brave in her first feature) who is keen to break into movies, and a curious power game proceeds between her and Boy Wonder. In this, being on film is all that matters, it's what fuels the characters' dreams and they're willing to go to drastic lengths to make their lives like those of their idols. Yet in the introduction, the finished film is played to a group of men who make lewd comments and have no respect for those who made it, so it's unclear where Byrum's sympathies lie. Are they deluded by the promise Hollywood rarely delivers?