blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Special (2006, Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore)

Michael Rapaport’s kind of floundered through Hollywood for the last fifteen years. It seems like he would have been a great 1970s character actor–twenty years too late, he ended up on a sitcom. Special‘s probably his best performance; he inhabits the role of a lonely schlub who makes fun of himself for still reading comics, never asks out the girl he likes and never stands up to anyone. Then he gets a magic pill and becomes a superhero.

The viewer, however, understands Rapaport’s having a unique reaction to a trial drug and is hallucinating everything. Special shifts from humor to drama quickly–often so fast, laughing at Rapaport’s more outlandish behaviors immediately causes guilt when reality becomes clear. The film sets up a strange relationship with its audience, one where it’s inviting laughs after it seems like it should have gone full drama.

Rapaport also narrates a lot of the film and that narration, his delivery of it, is fantastic. The narration really compliments the onscreen action, it’s unexpectedly successful (since narration’s usually such a misstep).

But when Special becomes about the human condition, instead of a misfiring brain on a drug trial, things start to fall apart. The film doesn’t have an ending–going through two or three false ones before finally stopping. That lack is intentional, to embrace the filmmaking style–Special‘s a little vérité, I really do think they just had Rapaport walk around in a goofy suit and filmed people’s reactions–but it isn’t honest to the characters.

Special has a great bunch of actors working in it. The entire cast–Paul Blackthorne (who gets a great close), Ian Bohen, Josh Peck, Robert Baker, Jack Kehler and Christopher Darga–is excellent. But the best surprise is Alexandra Holden, who spends most of the film in a cursory role, only to play a crucial part in the conclusion–it’s practically a melodramatic plot development, but it doesn’t quite qualify because it’s just a detail–and Holden pulls it off. She doesn’t just make it work, she makes it wonderful.

The film only runs eighty minutes. It’s subplot free–Rapaport’s character is defined through his voiceover, since there’s barely any time for the viewer to get to know him before he starts going crazy. It just loses itself in the last twenty minutes.

Technically, it’s solid. Directors Haberman and Passmore combine comedy and lyricism–Special‘s not a commentary on the new superhero genre, which isn’t just a pleasant surprise, it’s also essential to the film working. There’s no fetishistic attitude, no references to famous films. The music, from Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval, accounts for a good deal of the film’s success.

Special needed another ten minutes, an ending instead of a stopping, but it’s got a lot of great acting and, even though the concluding sentiment is a tad trite, it’s a fine viewing experience.

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