[Special opens today at Manhattan’s Sunshine Cinema. Click here for more information. It is also playing on Time/Warner & Comcast Video-on-Demand. Check local listings.]
Special is good enough in various particulars that its token theatrical release—nearly three years after its Sundance Film Festival debut—is more than slightly bittersweet. Co-writers/co-directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore rest their depressive character study on the able shoulders of actor Michael Rapaport, who pushes the film forward even as its jittery, hand-held aesthetic frequently marks time.
As Les Franken, an introverted meterman convinced, after ingesting an experimental depression medication, that he has superpowers, Rapaport grounds Special’s numerous flights of fancy within a painfully physical realm. Haberman and Passmore take a page from the cartoonist Bill Watterson, who noted of the tiger protagonist in his great Calvin & Hobbes, “The nature of [the character’s] reality doesn’t interest me, and each story goes out of its way to avoid resolving the issue. ... I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it.” So when Les demonstrates his “ability” to run through walls, we see him do just that. But we also see some telling aftereffects (a bloody nose; a rapidly expanding bruise) or alternate character perspectives—say those of pot-smoking, comic book store-running brothers Joey (Josh Peck) and Everett (Robert Baker)—that throw the veracity of Les’ beliefs into harsh relief.
It’s to Haberman and Passmore’s credit that they don’t privilege one point of view over another—there’s an empathy and sophistication to their approach (always lovingly low-tech, as in Les’ climactic fight with two invisible secret agents) that plays effortless and is sure to go unappreciated in company with the film’s abundant rough patches. Prime among these is a meandering middle section where the conspiratorial aspects of Special grind its emotional undercurrents to a halt. Everyone flails around aimlessly for a spell, until Haberman and Passmore drop the colorful-cum-contrived side characters and focus more intently on Les.
The character’s loneliness in the film’s final section is palpable, and it resonates all the more due to Haberman and Passmore’s decision (perhaps inevitable because of budget) to shoot the Los Angeles setting like a desolate ghost town. Les’ personal diary entries serve as too-expository narration throughout, but when he’s wandering ’round the City of Angels like Monica Vitti in L’Avventura—a bruised and battered shell of a man, silently pondering his existential lot—the film finds its groove.
The “superhero-as-fragile-martyr” theme is nothing new, but Haberman and Passmore go beyond any easy elitist outs. Les isn’t above any of the people he aims to save, and though his intentions are noble, they’re also irrevocably wrapped up in a complicated, all-too-recognizable psychosis. Even in its imperfections, Special lays enough of a foundation for its final shot, in which the bloom of understanding on one man’s face echoes with all the force of an eye-laser (perhaps pre-figured by Superman or Cyclops) to the soul.
Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door.