America’s chief pop cultural obsession of the past 80 odd years contains a rarely discussed dark side. Call it Superhero Derangement Syndrome: the relentless fixation on an unattainable fantasy of crime fighting with otherworldly powers. While such dreamy identification first gained traction as catharsis—perhaps when Superman battled Adolf Hitler, courtesy of DC Comics—it has since morphed into a perceived reflection of modern times. Contemporary notions of social justice often suggest the hyperbolic virtues of a caped crusader, but the potential disconnect this can
create for the idealistic everyman never receives selfsame scrutiny. In Special, co-writer-directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore smartly diagnose the disorder, although the jury is still out on a treatment.
A chronicle of mental decline masquerading as science fiction, Special stars perennial character actor Michael Rapaport as Les, a likable dolt whose momentary respite from the monotony of his life as a lonely meter maid comes from reading comic books. Seeking medical help to combat his depression, Les is prescribed a highly experimental drug with the unexpected side effect of deluding him into believing he has super powers. But is it truly a misconception, or has Les become endowed with supernatural finesse? The answer is obvious fairly early on, but the filmmakers flimsily obscure the details within Les’s own twisted version of the truth. Allowing Les’ voiceover to lead the way, they empathize with his persistent state of denial. Mortified, Les’ neurotic doctor (Jack Kehler) orders him to quit the pills, but he refuses to relinquish the ecstatic high of his newfound heroic ambitions.
A psychological thriller operating under the guise of familiar genre tropes, Special never lifts the veil on its bleak prognosis. We know that Les is seriously screwed up, endowed as he is with messianic delusions. However, Haberman and Passmore fixate on their lost protagonist’s totally wacky personal revelations rather than the fairly perilous ramifications they have on the surrounding environment. Where related movies might go for brash comedy, Special loads up on symbolism. Les imagines a pair of arch-nemeses from the corrupt company responsible for the drug in his system, two Orwellian empty suits seeking to destroy his joyride. He doesn’t let up, constantly eluding them until the final showdown, but what this actually means—Does he kick his addiction? Does he overdose on the drug?—doesn’t reach a point of final clarity.
At its best, Special thrives on ambiguity. Loaded with sub-par special effects straight from the Repo Man playbook, the movie’s lo-fi aesthetic indicates Les’s senseless mind-set. When he leaps through a wall and returns with a bloodied face, there’s no doubt about what really happened. Deranged but still incessantly affable, Les fills in his mundane existence with everything and anything that might make life a little better: He can fly! He can disappear! He’s telepathic! Watching Les continually invent new ways of enlivening his hermetic adventure, it’s hard not to give yourself over to the ridiculous proceedings, but neither can you ignore the underlying solemnity of the situation. Before he goes mad, Les muses that he “had this vague sense that something was disappearing” from his life; his attempt to reclaim the missing pieces becomes a prolonged vanity act.
Les’s trippy plight radiates an infectiously bittersweet feel, recalling a vibe not unlike Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In both films, a character’s defamiliarization with his surroundings turns into a manner of problem solving that, on its own terms, makes plenty of sense. Even when it’s clear that Les has gone batty, he remains inherently likable. As a result, Special has a tragic core, but not an entirely dour one. Les’ two closest buddies (Josh Peck & Paul Blackthorne) are a couple of stoners who run a comic book store and inadvertently become his bumbling sidekicks. They’re simultaneously a source for comic relief and a joint contrast to their buddy’s prevailing confusion, treating superhero stories as a supplement to reality.
A great genre film dissects authentic problems without attempting to supplant them. Reasonably enough, Special belongs to that category with the rest of Magnet’s “Six Shooter Series.” The release strategy makes a lot of sense for this intelligently curated collection. Each title in the series either upends genre expectations (such as Special and the recently released Swedish vampire coming-of-age tale Let the Right One In) or reduces them to their primal states (the sleek time-travel thriller Timecrimes and Splinter, in which a carnivorous, parasitic beast attacks an abandoned gas station).
But Special is the least exaggerated of the bunch, situated in what by all indications appears to be the real world. If it were slightly less downbeat, the movie would show Les returning to the sober realm from whence he came. Instead, he conquers the abstract challenges set forth in his tailor-made universe, and the uplift of the conclusion is belied by the perseverance of a never-ending illusion.
Directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore, Running Time: 82 minutes
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