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The Best of 2008: 'Special'

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Special (2008)


Special is probably one of the most bizarre, but effectively satirical superhero films ever made. Although finished in 2006, this independent film did not reach its theatrical release (though limited) till 2008. Not based on any comic or previous source material, the film has a demented premise: a lonely, solemn metermaid (one who issues parking tickets) takes part in a survey to test an experimental anti-depressant whose unexpected side-effect causes our mild-mannered lead to believe he has superpowers. Along with many other films on my list that celebrate optimism, Special may have the most telling of messages. Unquestionably, the film would not work nearly as well if it were not for its incredibly strong lead actor, Michael Rapaport, in the role of Les.

What makes Les so interesting is that not only is he a comic book fan, but he is already a public servant whereas most superheroes do not begin as such. Les tells us at the very beginning, with some clear but not tiresome narration, that at one point in his life he believed he could fly if he just willed it. Giving him some encouragement (though his own organic drugs don't help his own encouragement) is fellow comic book fan, Joey, played with excellent range by Josh Peck. Jack Kehler plays pharmaceutical tester, Dr. Dobson, with superb efficiency and works as an excellent foil to Michael Rapaport's unstoppable force of personality. Rapaport has an effective image as a superhero. At 6'3, he looks very good when decked in his odd, somewhat reflective costume. He is also an average looking guy, so anyone can relate to him (especially since Les wears no mask), which is a very good directorial decision by directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore who make their feature film debut here. The ultimate question to this film is whether Les actually has any superpowers. Everyone in the film tells him, "no," but Les keeps on trekking and even brandishes a new moniker: Special. Les rips off the logo off of his free T-shirt used to market the drug and is inspired by the name's purity. It is there where the film truly finds its charming cuteness. The man has never really thought of himself as a special human being and has now reached a level of enthusiasm and hope where it is ok to be Special.

A hero though is not without his villains, and this film delivers them with great flare. Paul Blackthorne portrays the slimy and sleezy Jonas Exiler who wants Les to stop wearing his logo and giving his drug a bad name, and he'll do it with any means necessary whether it's bribes, kidnapping, and using force fields and 2x4s to do it. Special's greatest ability as a hero and as a film is the fun ambiguity of whether the powers are actually there or not. If you watch the film for the first time, there is probably a rational explanation for every advantage Les gets out of his "powers", but a second time can also prove he is quite invulnerable to almost anything. Les' version of Kryptonite comes in the form of a female cashier, played with sweet affection by Alexandra Holden, who has some limitations and shining abilities of her own. When Les gets to the end of a very bitter battle, the adorable Maggie comes to assist Special despite Les' own difficulty in communicating with her. Even though the film may seem skewed for some, Special has a very effective goal in mind: he'll never stop and perhaps he has always had these superpowers. He just needed to have the will.