Several years ago a friend of mine told me that I had to see the Todd Solondz comedy, Happiness, because it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen. My brother, Dave, and I rented it with our expectations tuned for something off beat. We’d both seen Welcome To The Dollhouse and knew what to expect to some degree because what Solondz qualifies as funny is often tragic and awkward to the rest of us. Much to my horror, there was absolutely nothing funny about Happiness. Nor was there any happiness in Happiness. Most of the plot concerns a pedophile whose desire to fuck young boys gets out of control. A real laff riot. Thanks, Scott. I should have known better.
Years before that, an entirely different friend of mine told me about this movie called Vampire’s Kiss and how he had been led astray by the advertising for the movie which wanted you to believe that it was a zany comedy starring Nicholas Cage as this office guy who is attacked by a woman he thinks to be a vampire and spends the rest of the movie running around in a cape and shit and what it’s really about is an on-the-edge office guy who suffers from the delusion that he’s a vampire and spends the rest of the movie terrorizing a woman that he works with until her brother runs him through with a splintered board.
What I’m getting at is that all the promotions and marketing for Special made me think that it was going to be a comedy at least in part. It wasn’t. Not even remotely.
Les Franken is a sad sack dude. Even his name, Les, suggests someone who is particularly ordinary. By day, he walks the beat, writing parking tickets and by night he reads comics over microwaved dinners in cramped apartment. His only friends seem to be a pair of surly, stoner brothers who run the comic shop where he buys his books. On a whim, he volunteers to be a part of a drug study on a medication called Specoprin Hydrochloride, shelf name Special, which is supposed to remove all thoughts of self-doubt in the user but Les suffers a reaction that gives him the delusion that he has super powers and compounds the problem with a healthy dose of paranoia. With his newfound powers, which seem to manifest in the comics that he reads, he quits his job and goes around tackling people on the street that he thinks to be criminals. When the news media picks up on it, the drug company’s founders hit the streets looking for him, hoping to contain the wildcard that could ruin them and everything they’ve worked for.
The trailers for Special suggest that it’s a funny movie. Michael Rappaport, who plays Les, writhes around on the floor pretending to levitate, he imagines that his doctor is comminicating with him telepathically and a future version of him comes back in time to warn him that ‘the suits’, the brothers who run the drug company, are out to stop him because they’re vilains and he’s the hero. When you stack the scenes up like that and cut it the way the trailer is arranged, sure, it looks pretty funny. But have you ever seen that recut trailer for The Shining where they make it look like a touching story of a boy and his estranged father coming together in the serene setting of the Overlook Hotel? It’s a riot and it’s really convincing. The Peter Gabriel song seals the deal. Creative editing can make something out of nothing and most of Special’s promotion was pretty misleading.
That said, Special is actually quite good. It’s a meditation on loneliness and the standard state of the human condition. We all want to stand apart from the crowd some times. Six billion people on this planet and only a handful of us will ever rise above the herd and be something more than the rest of us for whatever reason. We desperately try to find ways to be more than we are and in this day of Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, we have the means to broadcast our boring-ass lives out into the internet as though the stupid shit that we do is somehow important in the grand scheme of things. Whether you’re demonstrating some kind of martial arts prowess in a video, showing off blurry camera phone shots of you and your jackass friends doing bong rips at Grey Matter in Amsterdam or flexing an absurd obsession with horror movies on a blog, we all experience a strong need to at least feel like an individual. This is what Special is about. The drug, Special, actually works. It works quite well. Les is the one case where things go wrong. His particular brain chemistry, prodded by his particularly lonely life and insulated existence prompts a strong reaction, the logical extreme of what the drug is supposed to do.
But this angle isn’t quite strong enough to float the entire picture and to carry it into feature-length land, the element of ‘the suits’ is added as every hero needs a villain. Jonas Exiler, a name torn straight from the pages of a comic, also played by Paul Blackthorne who starred as Harry Dreseden in the short-lived Sci Fi channel series, The Dresden Files, is taking every measure to contain Les as he has the potential to ruin everything he and his brother have worked for. Since Les wears the company logo as his super hero insignia, like Superman’s iconic S, they fear that they will lose the buyout that is happening when Les experiences his reaction. Exiler certainly is villainous and Blackthorne plays him to perfection, but the movie feels as thought it is ending before his character is even introduced. As a matter of fact, the entire running time of the movie has that same feeling of conclusion as the closing of The Return of the King where every time it seems as though the tale has been told and that it’s over, it cuts to a new scene and the picture keeps on moving.
Rappaport, however, is excellent. He’s a great actor to begin with and his turn here as a man losing his mind in spectacular ways is both sympathetic and familiar. It’s very easy to feel bad for Les Franken because he seems like such a nice guy, even if he’s a huge loser. There’s some of him in all of us, not that we’re all introverted weirdos who only seem to come alive while getting lost in the pages of a comic but we’ve all struggle in that pit of despair that he seems to call a life.
Bottom line, buyer beware. Special may look funny but you won’t find much to laugh at. This is my third look into Magnet’s Six Shooter film series and while Let The Right One In and Timecrimes were both outstanding pictures in every way, Special is sold all wrong. It’s a quiet examination of our drive to stand out but it’s not nearly as madcap as the ads make you believe.