Review: ‘Special’ Takes the Superhero Genre to an Odd New Place

Special is a solid film because it sticks to the basics – a great script, and a stellar performance by a talented lead actor.
By  · Published on November 20th, 2008

While we’re riding high on the wave of a glut of superhero movies, it’s easy to imagine that any superhero film would be a giant-budget, CGI-fest loaded with stars interested in trading in their Oscars for Geek Cred and studio appreciation. This trend was no more apparent than earlier this year when Hancock, a giant-budget, CGI-fest loaded with stars that actually claimed to turn the hero genre on its head was released and made a disgusting amount of money without making a lot of sense.

Because of that, it was refreshing to see Special, a low-budget indie that actually does turn the genre on its head while retaining a strong sense of story and character. Without the bloated budget and endless sea of CGI, filmmakers Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore were free to create a truly intimate film that delivers a truly unconventional hero.

Les (Michael Rapaport) is a meter maid, pushed around in almost every facet of his life, who’s just begun a clinical trial for a new medication. When the pills affect his mind, making him believe he has super powers, he has to navigate a strange world where he’s the only one that believes in his abilities.

Rapaport carries the entire film with a strong performance that will elicit laughs from some and tears from others. The script he’s working with is subtle, and Rapaport’s Les has a quiet desperation of a man looking for something incredible in an all-too-ordinary life. In that sense, Les is a universal character – a person who hates his job, feels weak and powerless to control his own fate, who digs deep into comic books to avoid looking up at a nearly-friendless real world. In his condition, he embraces his new “powers” – a hilarious blend of misunderstanding and plain old hallucination – with gusto.

Rounding out the cast are comedy favorite Jack Kehler as Les’s doctor, Josh Peck and Robert Baker as the two brothers that run the comic book store Les heads to on break, and Paul Blackthorne as an amoral drug company executive attempting to thwart Les in order to keep him from suing the company. You’ll note that there aren’t a lot of characters, and while it certainly exposes the low-budget feel of the film from time to time, it works really well for the storyline that focuses most of its attention on Les in the first place.

The visual style and directing is straight-forward which creates an interesting atmosphere for the display of Les’s powers. They’re shown in such a matter-of-fact way, without needing a neon sign attached to every dollar spent on CGI or practicals, that it seems almost pedestrian that he can (or thinks he can) run through a wall or teleport. At the same time, it creates a cool atmosphere where the audience basically hallucinates right alongside of him, never knowing whether we’re seeing things from his drug-addled point of view or from the lens of reality.

The quiet-yet-hip tone of the film reminded me a lot of Roger Dodger, another indie film that let’s its script and acting do the talking. A cool, minimalistic soundtrack enhances the odd story of a man who’s having an extraordinary life that only he’s aware of and a very real danger that threatens to prove that he really is a worthless waste of human life.

And that’s the beauty of the film. However pathetic Les is, his life is his own, and he has to learn that he has more power than he thinks, that he’s special without being able to levitate, that he can change the world just by standing up and refusing to back down. It’s this story, this character and this lesson that sets this film apart as a much better film than Hancock – one that actually succeeds in creating a fresh look at the super hero world, and does it without the aid of piles of cash, blockbuster star power or endless studio hand holding. Special is a solid film because it sticks to the basics – a great script, and a stellar performance by a talented lead actor.

Special is showing in limited release starting November 21st.

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