Insignificance imagines how four cultural icons, referred to as the Professor (Michael Emil), the Actress (Theresa Russell), the Senator (Tony Curtis), and the Ballplayer (Gary Busey), obviously corresponding to Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio, might have met and interacted.
Early in the movie, Einstein and Marilyn are in the same hotel room together, and by using a bunch of props that happen to be available, like balloons and flashlights, she gives a lively demonstration of her understanding of relativity theory, much to Einstein’s delight. Presumably, this scene is supposed to warm our hearts that Marilyn, whose screen persona was that of a dumb blonde, was actually smart enough to grasp the essentials of Einstein’s theory. And, by extension, it is supposed to make us feel smart in the bargain, for what Marilyn is saying is easy to understand, so those watching the movie who have little familiarity with the theory are flattered into thinking they understand it too.
Unfortunately, Marilyn has it all wrong. That is to say, Terry Johnson, who wrote the script for the play and the screenplay for the movie, got it all wrong. Johnson, by way of Marilyn, makes a mistake not uncommon for someone making his first attempt to understand the idea that a clock moving at a high rate of speed will run slow, according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity. If, as a clock on a spaceship moves away from the Earth, it sends a signal back to Earth every second, it will appear to be running slow, because each successive signal has farther to travel. But it doesn’t take a genius like Einstein to realize that you have to take into account the spaceship’s speed and distance from the Earth. In fact, allowing for that speed and distance in recording the signals coming from the clock is something any second-rate physicist would know to do. Actually, it is probably something that would occur to a liberal arts major. The time dilation predicted by Einstein’s theory, however, is an actual slowing down of a clock that can be observed even after you allow for the extra time it takes for each signal to reach the Earth.
As a result, the movie’s attempt to show how smart Marilyn is completely fails. It reminds me of the gaffe in The Wizard of Oz (1939), when the Scarecrow tries to show how smart he has become once the Wizard has given him a diploma. He supposedly enunciates the Pythagorean Theorem, but he botches it so badly that he enunciates a formula that is not true of any triangle that has ever existed.
In the case of The Wizard of Oz, however, one’s enjoyment of the movie is not impaired by the Scarecrow’s mistake even for those who are aware of it. Insignificance, however, would not have been much of a movie even if Marilyn had gotten Einstein’s theory right, and the fact that she didn’t only makes things worse.