By Jette Kernion (originally published on 10/29/06 -- Austin Film Festival)
I wasn't sure what to expect from a movie called Special, "special" being a word that gets used snarkily and ironically these days. Fortunately, Special turned out to be a good narrative feature with elements of comedy and drama, giving character actor Michael Rapaport a chance to really shine in a complex lead role.
Rapaport plays Les, who works as a meter maid -- only of course, being a guy, he's a parking enforcement officer. He won't admit to feeling depressed, but his job is causing him problems, so he signs up for a pharmaceutical trial of a new antidepressant, Special (Specioprin Hydrochloride). The drug is supposed to remove self-doubt; in Les, this means that he believes he has developed superpowers. He can feel himself floating in midair, and he can hear other people's thoughts. Perhaps he can even walk through walls. Is he becoming a superhero or progressively insane? His friends who run a comic-book store aren't sure whether they believe him, and the doctor who gave Les the pills is acting extremely odd. But Les is determined to pursue a life of heroic crime fighting, and he's not going to stop taking his Special pills. The film uses multiple points of view throughout and even within a single scene. Are we looking at something from Les's perspective, or are we looking at reality? Often it's difficult to say. But this is part of what makes Special such a fascinating movie to watch. For example, the Exiler brothers, who own the pharmaceutical company, may or may not exist, and if they do, they may not be doing what Les thinks they are doing. We are grounded at times by characters we know exist, such as Les's friends Joey and Everett.
Special reminded me of two other films I'd seen recently about characters who merge fantasy with a grim reality: Tideland and Pan's Labyrinth. The characters who mixed worlds in those movies were both young girls; in Special, it's a grownup man, which is much stranger. I felt sympathy for Les, who is either losing his mind or grossly misunderstood, but at the same time I was able to be amused by his situation.
Rapaport is riveting to watch as Les, as he transforms from a mild-mannered, easily duped meter maid to a self-identified superhero determined to help fight crime, and even further to his final state at the movie's climax. After Special screened at Austin Film Festival last week, Rapaport revealed during a Q&A that he'd been influenced in his characterization by the documentary Grey Gardens, which adds an interesting dimension to the film. He's assisted by a strong script with good dialogue from writer-directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore. I saw Passmore's short film Crossing earlier this year, and noticed that some of the more unusual elements from the short are also present in Special. The film was shot on 16mm film and has a slightly grainy look, which actually works well with the overall tone of the film.
Special starts in the vein of a comedy, but ends up more like the film Bug, with a heavy dose of psychological suspense and a paranoiac tone. Near the end of the film, we're not sure whether we're in Les's world, or everyone else's, but it's intriguing rather than confusing. The movie doesn't only go for the easy jabs about the pharmaceutical industry, it becomes something very -- I'm not going to say special, because that's too twee, but certainly different and attention-grabbing.