Writer-director Hal Haberman said of Special in an early interview: “I wanted the film to feel like a drug trip.” Indeed, the grainy old film stock and jump cuts that define the film's visual style offer a fair approximation of a hallucinogenic experience's certain hazy aspects. And despite some serious first-timer blunders, Special is an enjoyable, occasionally moving first feature for Haberman and fellow writer-director Jeremy Passmore.
The premise is hilarious on paper: Guy signs up for new antidepressant trial study, side effects lead guy to think he’s got super powers, guy makes costume and starts fighting crime (sort of). Viewers who have ever lived alone in a new city, eaten an unsatisfying microwave dinner hunched over their coffee table, and/or smoked too much bud will certainly be more predisposed to like this movie, especially if those activities have gone hand in hand with more than a twinge of self-pity. The camera spends a lot of time making sure we know just how down Les, the depressed meter-maid lead, feels. And the drug trial only makes things worse, as he embarks on an alternately slapstick-funny and cringe-inducing program of self-abuse in the name of justice.
Les runs headlong into solid walls, convinced he’s running through them and back, and chalks up the resultant injuries to the draining effects of learning how to use his nascent powers. Despite the nagging, heavy-handed voiceover narration putatively drawn from his journal, Michael Rapaport’s stellar portrayal stands out among a cast of reliable character actors like Josh Peck (Joey) and Paul Blackthorne (Jonas Exiler). Peck and Robert Baker (Everett) play their stoner nerd roles with perfect pitch, functioning as comic relief to Les’ (sym)pathetic straight man. However, their initial chuckles at Les' "powers" quickly turn into alarm as his safety is increasingly questioned. The delusions culminate in a gruesome sequence in which he badly bludgeons himself in imagined combat with a gang of phantom pursuers and winds up locked overnight in a convenience store bathroom to ride out the last effects of the drug. By this time, we’ve blown through a perceptive catalog of the myriad ways mind-altering substances can tear a personality down, carefully observed and made painfully literal.
Blackthorne and his fellow Exiler brother, proprietors of the Exiler Research Group and makers of the titular drug Special Rx, do reasonably well with their corny, underwritten roles. But for all the focus on Rapaport’s inner space, Special is also a movie about Big Pharma, and the movie misses the opportunity to underscore a more urgent point with these antagonists. All paranoids start with a germ of truth, consciously or otherwise, and Les is no exception. In this case, the corporate baddies really are out to get our long-suffering hero, and for a couple of supposedly PR-sensitive suits, they have no scruples -- self-interested or otherwise -- about violently invading Les’ home or even running him down repeatedly with their big black car. Their behavior warrants no suspension of disbelief, which is a shame because Haberman and Passmore could have made these villains much more plausible (and dastardly) if they forsook the cartoon-y revenge plot to explore the actual contemporary sins of the major drug companies.
While Exiler’s real-life counterparts, like Merck and Pfizer, enable more people to get more drugs than ever before, their business model also means a steadily increasing number of people are getting drugs they don’t need, largely because of cynical, self-interested campaigns to push doctors to write as many prescriptions as possible. Yes, Les signs up for the trial of his own free will, but his treatment at the hands of the medical establishment is the real conflict here, not the suddenly skewed relationship of his mind to the world outside his head. Here, Haberman and Passmore pass up another opportunity to inject Special with a shot of urgency and relevance. But then again, this is a movie about Les, not Michael Clayton.
Like a heavy trip, Special gets less funny as it starts to feel more real. Unfortunately, just when it’s feeling real enough to capitalize on its potential to make a serious point, the movie falls back into a pat, woefully exaggerated resolution (though, fortunately, that means it’s still pretty amusing). But it’s pointless to judge Special on the merits of what it isn’t. Here’s what it is: a movie worth seeing that still leaves you, like Les, wishing for a little more satisfaction.