"What's the matter? Don't you go out anymore?"
Quietly harrowing little interior drama, with an assured performance by Elliott Gould. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Limited Edition Collection, for hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released Inside Out, the 1986 drama from M-G-M, written and directed by Robert Taicher, and starring Elliott Gould, Howard Hesseman, Jennifer Tilly, Beah Richards, and Dana Elcar. A small, claustrophobic film that uses agoraphobia as its framework for some subtle commentary on modern life today, Inside Out probably got lost in all the turmoil when M-G-M was thought to be going bankrupt in 1986...but I doubt it would have achieved the level of acceptance that say, James L. Brooks' similar, slicker, sunnier As Good As It Gets did eleven years later: there's no "fun" to be had here at all. No extras for this good-looking transfer.
Jimmy Morgan (Elliott Gould) hasn't left his luxury townhouse apartment for quite some time. With his businessman father deceased, Jimmy stays at home and waits for his weekly checks from partner Leo Gross (Dana Elcar). With a sizeable bank account, and a sophisticated remote that controls his phone and various TVs and security cams, Jimmy doesn't really need to leave home: all of his comforts can be delivered right to his door: Chinese food, drugs from dealer Freddy (Meshach Taylor), even hookers like Amy (Jennifer Tilly), courtesy of a respectable "escort" service. He can even feed his gambling addiction by simply phoning up his bookie Sal (Robert Miranda), and placing big bets on all the college and pro games that Jimmy watches from TVs in every room―including one right over his tub. Cleaning woman Verna (Beah Richards) comes by frequently; she's a hard-working church woman who doesn't like how Mr. Morgan is living...but she keeps quiet about it. Even Jimmy's adorable little 11-year-old daughter, Heather (Nicole Nourmand), living with Jimmy's ex, Elizabeth (voice of Wendy Cutler), has become used to the disappointment that her father just doesn't want to leave his home. Only when old friend Jack (Howard Hesseman) stops by and begins to put the pieces together―and actually confront Jimmy on his sickness―does Jimmy's world start to become unstuck, exacerbated by some serious gambling loses...and some strange goings-on at the company he never visits anymore.
If Inside Out had a major release back in 1986, I must have missed it, because it looked completely unfamiliar to me when the disc arrived in my box last week (Maltin doesn't even list it in his 2010 Movie Guide). And if I retained writer/director Robert Taicher's name as "executive producer" from the credits of Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain when I saw it back in college a hundred years ago, it had since escaped me as I popped this disc into the player. I suppose the "phobic" title most readily available to people's recollections is James L. Brooks' big award-winning hit, As Good As It Gets from 1997, with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt "meeting cute" over Nicholson's various maladaptions. Inside Out doesn't go for any kind of romantic comedy heartstring tugging (nor certainly the belly laughs of everything-phobic Bill Murray's delightful What About Bob?), creating instead an increasingly tense, depressing drama of a sick man's "safe" world rapidly crumbling around him, and his decision to either face his fears...or go under for good.
Writer and director Taicher, with the aid of production designer Jack Wright III and cinematographer Jack Wallner, does an admirable job of creating Jimmy's hermetically sealed environment with this one-set film. Lulling us at first by slowly exploring Jimmy's self-contained world, we're encouraged to "enjoy" the artificial security of this half-life, as we see Jimmy hiding behind his toy trains, his sleeping and eating whenever he wants, and his constant TV-watching―all done in rather plush surroundings―which further anesthetizes us by eliminating any money worries we may have for Jimmy (if he can play like that, in that townhouse, for so long, he's got dough, we think, so he'll be okay). Of course once this novelty wears off, we begin to see how stunted Jimmy's so-called life really is, a teen's addle-pated, emotionally-retarded version of the "perfect" life: endless TV, wind-up toys and an ant farm when one is bored, drugs and no-strings-attached hookers when one is really bored, and a stern-but-sweet, maternal black maid who's kindly to you, and who gives you a little sass―but no overt moralizing―over the strange peccadilloes she dutifully ignores. Later, when Jimmy's friend Jack discovers that Jimmy has framed an article about Hugh Hefner (where Hef states that experiencing the world through media is no different than actually being there), Jimmy's twisted construct of a life then falls into place for the viewer: a distilled, crystallized Playboy® template that's as insular as it is completely phoney.
Of course, underlying this construct is all of Jimmy's sickness and paranoia and fear: fear of facing up to his responsibilities (the death of his father and his role in maintaining his business, fear of his daughter getting older), fear of growing up, and subsequently, fear of the outside world, with his worldview distorted by the media he constantly watches―a media that only harps on the bad news inbetween the mindless drivel it spews out to medicate the masses. Once Taicher gradually lets us know that something is seriously wrong with Jimmy, he slowly (and suspensefully) tears Jimmy's world apart, filling us with a growing dread as we see the likeable Jimmy's inability to stop his self-destructive process. Admirably, Taicher is quite restrained in getting to all of this (as he is with his subtle asides on the media and homelessness, through the homeless man who lives in Jimmy's outside vestibule). Not once is the word "agoraphobia" mentioned; a convenient label is denied us, so we can (perhaps) start to identify with Jimmy's defense mechanisms, before they're shown to be harmful (the "reveal" scene with Hesseman, where, after he sees one of Jimmy's moth-eaten sweaters, he finally figures out that Jimmy hasn't left his house in four years, is quite powerful because the build-up to it has been so gradual).
If the end feels problematic, because SPOILERS ALERT! Jimmy, left with absolutely nothing (business ransacked by his father's partner who has had enough of Jimmy's absence, nest egg depleted by gambling and the recession, all his valuable possessions given to his bookie), finally goes outside to see his daughter...well, what other way could the film end? Lying on the floor in his bare townhouse (and surely soon to be evicted), he'd have to be brought out sometime, so Taicher again avoids the easier melodramatics and simply has Jimmy make the first, almost impossible step of walking out his front door. You may rightly question the look of that "street" he walks out onto (I suppose it could be real...but it sure looks like a backlot set to me, which really negates the impact of Jimmy leaving his "set" townhouse), but the warm, touching final image of Jimmy hugging his daughter (Nicole Nourmand is just right here) and promising to visit her in Chicago, feels genuine, and not at all insulting to the harrowing business that proceeded it. Credit Gould in an atypical role for helping to bring about Inside Out's feeling of authenticity. He's perfectly cast here: we love Gould, and he's so sweet and low-key (even if we question how his character behaves), that we genuinely fear for Jimmy when his life starts to unravel. Now don't get me wrong―I love the more familiar Gould, the loping, smart-assed hipster who's cooler than cool in Altman's masterpiece, The Long Goodbye. But here, there are no gimmicks, no "Gould" shtick to fall back on: just a characterization, and a believable one at that. It's one of his most unexpected turns...and beautifully done.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.