Toronto After Dark Report: Special Review
When a movie is every bit as good as you hoped it would be what else is there to say. Now the only question is how soon you’ll be able to see it. While stateside distribution is set for next year the deal still could fall through. But even if it does I predict this film will become a cult hit on DVD.
Michael Rappaport plays Les, a disenchanted meter maid whose sudden decision to participate in a drug study changes his life forever. At first the little blue pills, which are product named Special and which are supposed to strip the subject of self doubt, seem to have little to no effect. But suddenly he finds himself developing a series of seemingly endless super powers. Walking through walls, floating in mid-air, invisibility and making things disappear are just some of the things he’s able to do. The only problem is that he may just be going completely out of his mind since noone else seems able to see him do them. And when he quits his job to become a self styled super hero the makers of the trial drug make it their business to stop him before his actions can jinx the sale of the drug to a super conglomerate.
What sounds like the makings of a bad Rob Schneider film are elevated not only by the brilliant performance of Michael Rappaport but by virtually every other aspect of the filmmaking. Directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore have made a lush, rich looking film set in a cold concrete environment where tragedy seems implicit, comedy inevitable and empathy as much a part of the geographic landscape as the emotional one. You want Les to transcend this place, you want a man to be able to fly in this world precisely because it seems impossible a world could be this empty of soul. I’m a city dweller and the soul crushing aspect of urban blight that haunts me as I walk through my own neighborhood is captured perfectly here.
What’s also captured is the humor built into the films premise. Instead of going for broad strokes and dressing Les up in a ridiculous costume the film offers endlessly inventive and very, very funny displays of psychological frailty and superhuman ability. We aren’t laughing at Les as much as at the situations he finds himself in. Rappaport walks a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about his mental state but drawing the humor out of situations that could have simply been slapstick. I’ll resist the urge to elaborate on the many sight gags, and bits of dialogue because I want you to be as surprised as I was by the élan with which they are presented.
But there is one aspect of this film that outweighs all others. There are many films which ask if their main characters are crazy or not and on the whole they tend to be decent enough. Even clunkers like K-Pax generally offer good performances from their leads and others like Conspiracy Theory and especially They Might Be Giants are very good in that they trade masterfully on our desire to see their lead characters vindicated. But Special goes a step further offering a lead character whom we must believe in. He is too much like ourselves, if there is nothing special about Les then indeed there can be nothing special about us. Even as Special lets you decide about Les’ mental state it trades on the human need to know that there is MORE. Just as Les’ friends doubt the existence of his powers we doubt them when seen from their point of view. After all our senses tell us everything we need to know about truth, right? Special knows this isn’t true and deep down it knows that we know it too.
I’m a person who often feels more comfortable exploring the dark side of things. And Special is indeed a film that explores dark things, like the way a person can need meaning so badly that they construct a false one. But beyond telling me that I am Special this film offers a love letter to the idea that deep down I should know it’s safe to believe I am even though the cold concrete around me might not affirm the fact.