Sales culture

The unpleasant side of acting is revealed in ‘The Definition of Insanity’

by Steven Snyder

The events that bookend this year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival are more than appropriate.

On opening night, Don McKellar’s satirical “Childstar” worked to tear down the artificial world of professional Hollywood.

And this weekend, to close out the festival, Robert Margolis and Frank Matter’s “The Definition of Insanity” is the pained, but ultimately optimistic, counterpoint to McKellar’s cynicism.

Margolis and Matter’s vision is an intimate, unfiltered view of the trench warfare known as today’s acting scene. It is a grueling daily grind, in which actors seek out auditions in desperation and even friends and lovers exist more as business connections than three-dimensional people.

At its center is Margolis himself, begging the question of whether the film is inspired by the stories of real-life actors or if this is, in fact, the heartbreaking record of Margolis’ trials and tribulations.

This is in large part due to Margolis’ convincing variety of emotions. On some days, he embodies the enthusiasm of an actor who believes he has finally turned the corner with his career. On others, he sags with the rejection of a man who has been subjected to more than his fair share of humiliation. Sometimes, he struts down the street with the force of a dreamer who is too determined, or foolhardy, to quit.

Along the way, he suffers every emotion imaginable between these extremes. Margolis’ wife pressures him to get a stable job. He feels the jealousy of watching a close friend’s career advance thanks solely to his connections. He works his way into an agent’s office and gets his big break, only to suffer the fallout of a mistake that costs him his opportunity.

There’s something operatic about this man’s plight, and both Margolis and Matter manage the melodrama with a healthy balance of nonjudgmental empathy. This is not just the story of one man struggling in the big city, but it could be the tragedy of every actor in every city, working alongside thousands of others, striving simply to get noticed.

The film’s only flaw might be the momentary bumps in its documentary style, which at times require actors to force their performances in an attempt to seem “more real.” Usually, however, the approach immerses the viewer in Margolis’ world of erratic ups and downs.

According to Hollywood legend, actor Michael J. Fox got his big break for the television series “Family Ties” on a pay phone. A struggling actor, he could not afford a phone and gave out the number of a pay phone instead.

Outright poverty, because of the passionate pursuit of a dream, is a difficult concept for many to grasp. Thanks to “The Definition of Insanity,” however, many will have the chance to walk for a few hours in a poor, flawed and defiant actor’s shoes.