We’re all dreamers. For most of us, we’re still aspiring towards inevitable greatness, to be more than we currently are. So whenever we’re broached with a movie, or a novel, or song, which concerns itself with someone who wishes they were just a little bit better, we can relate. Directors like Michel Gondry and Jean Renoir have made careers dipping a toe in the realm of the fantastic, twisting the fabric of reality, and draping it over their audiences to deliver a narrative that’s rife with almost childish glee. However, when dealing in dreams, things can quickly turn nightmarish and horrifying, with the creatures from Pan’s Labyrinth and the Quay Brothers scurrying through the dark corners of our minds. As is the case with Special, a throat-punch of a cinematic dare offered by two relative unknowns, co-writer/directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore.
There’s a definite distinction between a good film and a film you want to watch. Think of Requiem for a Dream, for example. Obviously, this is a well-made movie with excellent performances, a relatively cohesive narrative, and unflinching delivery. It’s just not something you necessarily want to put yourself through again. Such is the unexpected nature of Special. It’s as if you’ve packed the car for a lovely, fun-filled day at the beach, and as you drive along, the traffic starts to slow until you find yourself in a traffic jam. You might joke to your passengers that “someone better be dead.” Then an ambulance goes by, followed by a police car, a fire truck, and then another ambulance. Nervous chuckles turn into gallows humor as you approach a smoking wreck. You see a body draped in a sheet being lifted on to a gurney. You then recognize one of the cars as belonging to a neighbor you really didn’t know well. That’s kind of the experience of watching Special. It starts out light-hearted and comical, a goofy little independent film that suddenly takes the twisted path into uncomfortable darkness and a little too stark reality. That’s not to say it’s not good. It’s extremely well done. It’s just a devastating sock in the gut you don’t see coming.
Special is the story of Les (Michael Rapaport), a lonely dorkish metermaid, who takes an anti-depressant medication and begins to hallucinate that he has superpowers. First he thinks he can levitate. Then he thinks he’s receiving secret telepathic messages from the clinical test doctor (Jack Kehler). Les confides his new found powers to his slackass comic book store buddies Joey and Everett (Josh Peck and Robert Baker), and he thinks he’s being pursued by two mysterious men whom he refers to as The Suits. Now, on paper, especially with the inclusion of the inherently goofy Michael Rapaport as star, this sounds like it should be a complete goonfest. You expect Rapaport to use his mawkish bravado and lanky frame to twitch around in a homemade costume tackling thugs and acting the clown. Which he does. Rapaport excels at being a loser trying to become something greater. But it’s all a clever bit of sleight of hand. While you’re watching him preen and strut for his friends as they take bong hits and laugh at him, the directors drop the bottom on you. It suddenly becomes a very real film about a man suffering severe psychic delusions.
As the movie careens into the dark world, it becomes more uncomfortable to watch. It’s no longer about a man who might have superpowers, some sort of Batman wannabe, but a very real story about a man coming apart at the seams. Rapaport gives a devastating performance that I didn’t honestly think him capable of. You can see him painfully fall apart under the harsh reality of the situation. He believes in his own powers, because he has nothing else to believe in. His desperation is heartbreaking. Watching him commit to the lie that his brain insists HAS to be true, watching the paranoia fight for him, you feel sorry for him. Then you start to feel scared. The two brothers, Joey and Everett, act as the barometer for his crazy. Joey is naive and wants to believe in Les, and Everett is scathing, cynical, and mean. But they both genuinely become scared for their friend. What they thought was a joke suddenly becomes real and unfunny and frightening. Seeing the horror in their faces at their friend’s reaction is particularly powerful.
The movie loses itself with the Suits, two pharmaceutical executives who stand to lose lots of money if their wonder drug is besmirched by this latent psychotic. They become a little too dire and psychotic in their own reactions. The movie goes a little too far over the top in their reactions to Les’s mental state. It makes sense that they stand to lose just as much as Les and that they would go to extremes to save it, but it still feels forced and a little too graphic. Then again, not everyone who does drugs ends up one-armed, prison-raped, dead, or doing a double dong on the other end of Jennifer Connelly, and we’re willing to accept that, so really it’s not too far off base.
My biggest issue with the movie is that I feel fooled. I was expecting a light-hearted comedy and instead got jammed with a horrific life lesson. This was the intent of the directors, to trick their audience with humor before kicking the chair out from under them, and it works. It works extremely well. The film reminds me a little of Mike White’s disturbing but terrific Chuck & Buck, not just because of the insanely cheap production values but because of the creepy dive into darkness. Like the hapless titular loser in that film, Les makes you laugh at him, then feel sorry for him, then scared for him, then scared of him. The directors almost tried to tack on love story, with a rescued cashier love interest (Alexandra Holden), but wisely choose to use her character instead to demonstrate again how Les has fallen apart.
Special is a devastating flick. It’s not something I recommend you run out to the theatres to watch. It’s best viewed quietly, at home, with some sort of happy film waiting on deck. It’s not going to drive you to suicide, but you can see unpleasant thoughts off in the distance if you look out your window at the right angle. It’s a little shaky for the first film by Haberman and Passmore. It shows promise, and I look forward to what they might come up with next. This will get washed away in the wake of the Oscar onslaught, maybe earning Rapaport a few nods from the independent spirit community, which is all it can really hope to expect. Now, if you excuse me, I’ll be over here, squeezing all I can out of this happy thought.
Brian Prisco is a burger whisperer from the hills and valleys of North Hollywood, by way of the fiery streets of Philadelphia. When not casting his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in an attempt to make sense of this crazy little thing called love, he can be found with his nose in a book in an attempt to make a grown woman cry when he beats her in the Cannonball Read. You can pick a fight with him via email at .com or decipher his crazy ramblings at The Gospel According to Prisco. Hail Discordia!
Special / Brian Prisco
Film | December 3, 2008 | Comments ()