Magnolia Pictures // 2006 // 81 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 22nd, 2009
He's not your ordinary superhero.
A quirky independent film about depression, crime fighting and experimental drug therapy, Special spent the last few years languishing in distributor hell, but finally makes its way to DVD. Michael Rapaport gets a rare leading role and knocks his performance out of the park. He's not your ordinary superhero, but this isn't your average superhero film.
Les (Michael Rapaport, Boston Public) is a lonely, thirty-something parking meter attendant, wasting away his days in a lonely stupor of self-loathing and emotional impotence. His one recluse is comic books, which he greedily devours in great quantities. Hoping to improve his lot in life, he volunteers for an experimental drug treatment: specioprin hydrochloride, to be market branded as "Special," a drug designed to remove self-doubt. Les eagerly consumes the medicine and waits for improvement in his life.
To his surprise, Les develops unexpected side effects -- superhero powers. He can levitate, walk through walls, even teleport if he concentrates hard enough. Eagerly, he shows his new talents to the trial doctor, Dr. Dobson (Jack Kehler, Men In Black II), but is confused when the doctor tells him to discontinue the medication, claiming that Les is having unexpected psychological side-effects. Les wants to keep his powers, to make a difference in the world, and sets out to do exactly that, donning a superhero costume of spray painted leather...much to the alarm of the drug company hoping to release Special in the marketplace.
In a way, I'm amazed to have a copy of this film in my hand. Completed back in 2006, Special has been floating about the ether in distribution limbo for the last few years, receiving all but the most cursory of theatrical releases before being acquired by Magnolia for DVD release in 2009 under its Magnet label. I remember seeing a trailer for the film years ago on the internet, and thinking how cool an idea this was, seeing Michael Rapaport as a pseudo-superhero who may or may not have special powers, mental illness or pharmacological-induced paranoia, and probably all three. Then the film vanished completely from the radar, receiving a minor theatrical release. I had forgotten entirely about it for years, until the DVD showed up.
An inspired independent cinema production, Special is a quirky, somber and melancholy superhero film, alternating between painful awkwardness and black comedy. The hero is exactly the opposite of what we expect in a superhero; a meek, timid man with no ambition and no passion for his life, until experimental drug trials chemically neuter his self-doubt. In his mind's eye, he manifests superpowers and decides to use them for good. To the rest of the world, he is a dangerous lunatic, drug-addled and rapidly declining into mental instability. Even if Special was a lousy film, I'd give props to the screenwriters for such a marvelously inventive concept.
Of course, the line between sane and insane is as fluid and shifting as a river in Special, so even though we're fairly certain that Les' so-called super powers are merely figments of his misfiring brain and imagination, we can never really be sure. This is the whole crux of the film; the normal everyday man tossing off the yoke of his self-doubt and embracing change in his life. Even if the change manifests in white leather suits and crime fighting, it's a marked improvement over the ragtag humdrum of his former existence, superpowers or no. It's inspiriting, in an awkward, medicated sort of way. This is the best part of Special; the plot itself is relatively straightforward and uneventful, even getting a bit preposterous as the story plays itself out. The actual meat of the film lies in Les and his newfound abilities -- whether real or imagined, they are life changing.
Having seen the film now, I am of two minds. I quite enjoyed it, but I also now understand why it languished in distribution hell for so long. A clever and charming film to be sure, but Special is torn between its desire for profound comment on the state of our modern uninspired life, and being quirky and ridiculous by having Michael Rapaport run around town in white underwear. The two elements don't always connect the way they should; introspection gives way to Les running head-first into walls, profundity gives way to Keystone-style cop chases. To successfully encapsulate both elements is a tall order for a film with such a brief running length. Maybe this is why they opted for a tacky voiceover narration throughout the film, attempting to unify its various elements -- but more on that later.
Rapaport turns out a surprisingly personable performance as Les; an immediately sympathetic character who we want to believe has super powers, because the alternative in his life is worse. It's interesting to see him in leading roles, a rare treat; he gets a bit hammy at the end of the film, stuttering and sputtering childlike as he tries (and fails) to comprehend his situation, but few actors could pull this film off with as much conviction and genuine sympathy. It is a strong, impressive performance. The special effects are for the most part low-budget, but effective all the same; with some clever editing and minor computer trickery, Special sells the illusion of flight, of walking through walls, of teleportation and invisibility.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is lacking, mostly due to the grainy film composition. It has the appearance of a film shot on 16mm (or worse) and brings a documentary hand-held shakiness to the picture. It doesn't look bad from an artistic point of view, but grain and distortion levels are off the charts. Black levels are decent, but the overpowering grain tints the picture with grays and purples throughout. The source material is just too low-budget to look good on DVD.
Audio comes in stereo and a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, both of which sound solid considering the low budget. Dialogue is clear, and the score is melancholy, somber and depressing, synth-driven and ambient, occasionally bursting into indie rock fuzz, guitar solos and cacophonic drums. It suits the film's tone very well. The volume levels may require some futzing, however, as the dialogue is a bit on the quiet side. Bass response is average, not as punchy as modern standards require.
Extras are poor; we get a few minutes of outtakes and a "HDNET: A look at Special" which is a tiny teaser for the film, nothing else.
The most annoying gaffe in Special is that the entire film is narrated by Les, waxing poetic about his feelings and his motivations. It is an awful and unnecessary addition. Many are of the opinion that if you need a voiceover to explain what's going on, then you fail Cinema 101, and this is certainly true here, because Special would be much improved minus the narration. It would be a much quieter, much more somber film, more introspective and emotionally resonating.
I kind of have the feeling a Blade Runner thing went on here, where the voiceover got tacked on in post-production in a last-ditch effort to make the film more appealing to mass audiences, or something. It's just a theory, but kind of a shame either way, because voiceovers are tacky.
Special lives up to its name. A quirky and neurotic adventure, this is low-budget cinema at its finest, bringing together a selection of (relatively) unknown actors around a unique concept, fighting uphill for years to get the film into the hands of audiences. The biggest surprise is how satisfying a superhero movie Special is, doubly so for audiences subjected in the last year to the melancholy tones of The Dark Knight and Watchmen. It may have had to wait and wait to get a release, but its arrival on DVD could not be more apropos for audiences.
Not guilty. Special is special, but in a good way -- not in the short
school bus way.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R