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The Definition of Insanity Review

By Joe Lozito

Jewel of Denial


Anyone who has pursued a career as an artist (actor, writer, musician, etc) will understand how "The Definition of Insanity" came to be. This documentary-style glimpse into the life of a struggling New York actor is the brainchild of Robert Margolis, who stars in the film (he also co-wrote and co-directed with Frank Matter). Mr. Margolis plays a 38 year-old actor, fighting to make ends meet in a small apartment with his wife and young child. He earns some spare cash selling pet food in between the odd audition and bit part.

I don't know how autobiographical this film is, but one can see Mr. Margolis, during a dark night of the soul, deciding to take matters into his own hands and making a film about his travails. It's a Hail Mary play - the kind that ends so many Hollywood rags-to-riches tales. There's no telling if this super-low budget film will be enough to get Mr. Margolis recognized. But for what it's worth, he's created an unceasingly raw, gritty and, above all, realistic portrait of one man following his dream - at the expense of everything else.

Mr. Margolis is seen going through a series of familiar humiliations (failed auditions, thanks-but-no-thanks voice-mails, missed payments, incessantly repeating his own last name). In his late thirties, he's at an impasse. Once again, he's got a possible acting gig off-Broadway, and it feels like his last chance. Where it used to be about a love of acting, "now it's just about survival". He's forced to ask for money from his parents, which puts additional strain on his marriage, and his father tries to hook him up with a job as a Private Investigator (those of you who've seen HBO's "Bored to Death", this isn't like that). The stakes are high. And over the course of the film, the desperation mounts to an almost unbearable level.

Mr. Margolis survives, it seems, due to a finely-honed resilience (or is it denial?). No matter how many times he's knocked down, he keeps hope alive; it's like an actor's "Rocky". He's also great with a hustle. You can see him spring into action to convince a theater owner to hold the film until an agent shows up, or finagle a meeting with that agent, or plead with the gas man to give him one more day to pay (which leads to the immortal line: "You don't touch the gas man!").

The film astutely paints his struggle as an addiction. Just as he's about to give up hope, he gets one more role and he's hooked again. Also, adding to the tragedy, Mr. Margolis (the character) doesn't seem to be a very good actor: he's seen doing "To be or not to be" with a gun to his head and breaking into histrionics as a U.S. President.

Mr. Margolis, the actor, on the other hand is a perfect vessel for this role. He has the scrawny, under-fed look of a "Mean Streets"-era Robert De Niro. And he's surrounded by a cast that - well, if they aren't plucked from the New York acting scene, they should be. The film's faux-documentary style may be wearing thin, in general, but it works here.

As his wife points out, a bit too obviously, the film's title refers to repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result. That is, perhaps, the most cynical possible view of Mr. Margolis's plight. But still, at what point does passion become denial? At what point is the struggle fruitless? The question's been asked before but seldom in so raw a fashion.

"The Definition of Insanity" may be too close to the bone for some. For others it may seem unbelievable. Perhaps the most insane thing about it is how tragically true it all is.

See This Film for Yourself:

Definition of Insanity - Watch on Demand (
Definition of Insanity on DVD (


What did you think?

Movie title The Definition of Insanity
Release year 2004
MPAA Rating NR
Our rating
Summary Unceasingly raw, documentary-style glimpse into the life of a struggling actor on New York's mean streets. May be too close to the bone for anyone with an unrealized dream. So, basically, everyone.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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