If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, a 38-year-old unknown still trying to succeed as an actor certainly qualifies. Fake documentary confounds autobiography and fiction as writer/director/actor Robert Margolis shepherds viewers through Gotham streets on his daily rounds, from audition to audition, from humiliation to humiliation.

If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, a 38-year-old unknown still trying to succeed as an actor certainly qualifies. Fake documentary confounds autobiography and fiction as writer/director/actor Robert Margolis shepherds viewers through Gotham streets on his daily rounds, from audition to audition, from humiliation to humiliation. Margolis wears his heart on his frayed sleeve in his unwavering belief that he was born to act. Brilliant, audacious indie, a collaboration between Margolis and Swiss director Frank Matter, has snagged awards wherever it has played and deserves a theatrical shot.

As Margolis has a wife (Kelli Barnett) and young son to support, his infrequent thesping gigs and occasional employment as a dog-food telemarketer are supplemented by handouts from his parents. But mom and dad have decided to cut the umbilical purse strings. They, in concert with his increasingly frustrated wife, urge Robert to get a “real” job and pursue his acting career on the side.

Such betrayal of his full-time calling horrifies our hero who, at least in his own mind, is always on the verge of a breakthrough. Though it is tempting to see the hero as a self-delusional loser, that interpretation begs the question of whether the same is not true of anyone bucking the odds in quest of a dream. Indeed, in many ways, “Insanity” plays like a tragicomic, schlemiel-centered version of innumerable Hollywood sagas where last-minute success reads in hindsight as heroic destiny.

Certainly success in Margolis’ and Matter’s picture, like a will-o’-the-wisp, beckons at every turn, only to be painfully (and hilariously) snatched away. The play Robert has been in rehearsals for during informal run-throughs actually gets funding for an Off Broadway opening, but the playwright, who repeatedly assured Margolis that he was irreplaceable, peremptorily dumps him for a “name.”

When a nervously hopeful, spruced-up Margolis shows up for a long-anticipated meeting with a bigshot theatrical agent (real-life player Bruce Levy), Levy’s staff denies he has any such appointment. A screening of a low-budget picture that Margolis headlined in (an actual Matter-directed, Margolis-starring opus) draws an amazingly large crowd, except that 95% of them are there to see the Fellini film upstairs.

Meanwhile, a callow youth (Derek Johnson) whom Margolis has been mentoring and preparing for the hard road ahead, effortlessly lands the lead role in a sitcom.

At low ebb, Margolis accepts the P.I. job his parents have been pushing, hanging out on stakeouts with an experienced gumshoe and basking in the glory of his first collar: a lost cat.

But the Big Break, in the form of a small but juicy role in a Bogdanovich film, waits in the wings, setting up the ultimate cosmic rug-puller.

Margolis and Matter insinuate slight temporal shifts within the largely chronological storyline: Scenes from play rehearsals with a changing cast irregularly punctuate the narrative, and it becomes clear that the text is probably written by Margolis and that it bears more than a passing resemblance to events in his life.

When a nurse interrupts a scene to usher off a suddenly catatonic actor, the suggestion is made that insanity may be more than a metaphor for our beleaguered hero.

Matter’s steady, hand-held DV camera, making the most of outdoor New York locations, effortlessly keeps the fiction of documentary alive without sacrificing composition or tonal control. The almost desperate closeup complicity that Margolis creates with the camera lends a ferocious ad lib immediacy to his running self-justifying commentary that is as endearing as it is delusional, making him a more benign, smarter Rupert Pupkin fated for documentable peculiarity instead of mass-media stardom.

The Definition Of Insanity

U.S.-Switzerland

Production

A Dirt Road Films/The Soap Factory production. Produced by Robert Margolis, Frank Matter. Executive producer, Steven C. Beer. Directed, written, edited by Robert Margolis, Frank Matter.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Matter; music, Paula Atherton, Amy Fairchild; sound, Harmonic Ranch; associate producers, Marine and Matthew Putman. Reviewed on DVD, New York, June 9, 2005. (In Brooklyn Film Festival.) Running time: 81 MIN.

With

Robert Margolis, Kelli Barnett, Frank Krias, Derek Johnson, Bruce Levy, Jonas Mekas, Peter Bogdanovich.
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