May 3, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Specials (2000)

by Nick Schager

The Specials

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Marvel's superhero-team extravaganza The Avengers.]

Released before 2002's Spider-Man and the ensuing (and still-ongoing) onslaught of CG superhero spectacles, The Specials is something like Watchmen-lite, with its deconstruction performed not with an incisive scalpel but a feathery sarcastic touch. Unlike screenwriter James Gunn's more recent Super—which bluntly delved into the psychosexual madness underlying masked avengers' vigilantism—his prior likeminded effort is a humorously cheeky affair, focusing on a mundane day in the life of The Specials, the "sixth or seventh greatest superhero team in the world." That ragtag group of do-gooders is led by The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church), a pompous blowhard whose arrogance—epitomized by his fondness for recounting to team members his origin story, in which he likens himself to God—is laced with a melancholy born from the realization that he's woefully low on the superhero ladder. His problems are compounded by the contempt showered on him by wife Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), who's secretly sleeping with smug Weevil (Rob Lowe), as well as by a bunch of paranormal misfits that include, among others, blue-skinned sexual degenerate Amok (Jamie Kennedy), dim-witted strongman U.S. Bill (Mike Schwartz), ill-tempered ghoul-summoning Death Girl (Judy Greer), and shrinking Minute Man (Gunn), whose name is constantly mispronounced "Minuteman" ("Do I look like a soldier from the Revolutionary War?").

The Specials

Dysfunction is the Specials' specialty, though that seems poised to change with the forthcoming unveiling of their action figures (an honor akin to the Oscars). Still, even that momentous event is downplayed by Gunn's tale as merely another facet of the daily drudgery faced by superheroes, who operate out of an office fielding requests from weirdoes (Ms. Invincible explains to a caller that they don't have archival nude photos of past members), and spend most of their time having pity parties about lack of recognition (Weevil says that being a Special is akin to being "the last sailor in line behind the whore"). Gunn shrewdly casts superheroism as a vocation driven by marketing concerns: Minute Man worries his costume is too "gay," and a rival outfit recruits Weevil because his blue outfit fills a need for their upcoming Beanie Baby dolls. Those concerns, however, never supersede Gunn's characterizations of his protagonists as goofy, socially screwy outcasts searching for acceptance and community. That portrait is aided by Real World-style confessional interviews in which the Specials' latent anger, misery, emotional retardation and bizarreness comes to the fore, never funnier than when Minute Man crazily opines (after failing to woo new recruit Nightbird (Jordan Ladd), "The great thing about not getting the person that you love is that you can still think about that person and masturbate, which is essentially the same thing."

The Specials

The fact that it preceded the last decade's superhero blockbuster trend likely contributed to The Specials' under-the-radar fate, though equally culpable for a lack of recognition is Craig Mazin's direction, which is so flat, ungainly and all-around uninspired that the film resembles a second-rate sitcom. Mazin never met a medium-shot he didn't want to light in dull hues and frame in the gawkiest way imaginable, and the effect is that the aesthetics—while mirroring the material's depiction of the Specials' routine busywork and bickering—work at odds with the zippiness of Gunn's script. That's most notable during a paparazzi-flashbulbed blow-up between Strobe and Ms. Indestructible about her infidelity, with Mazin barely able to even shoot a single punch to the face without employing graceless edits, and then ending the scene with time-lapse dissolves that have all the panache of an amateurish wedding video. That form-content dissonance drains The Specials of considerable electricity, although not enough to sabotage its funniest sequence, in which the Specials' toys wind up looking nothing like the members, with Minute Man turned into an African-American, Death Girl reimagined as a meat thermometer-wielding evil clown, and genius Mr. Smart (Jim Zulevich) given a Richard Dawson head.

The Specials

Gunn doesn't do much with his initial new-recruit-joins-the-team narrative strand, but the shagginess of the action proper is befitting a story about personal and professional disappointment, insecurity and ennui. Scant drama emerges from Weevil and Death Girl contemplating offers to join other crews, Amok thinking about returning to his youthful villainous ways (which involved trying to give the world scabies), and Strobe's petulant attempt to disband the Specials. Regardless, Gunn's writing, rooted in a deep familiarity of superhero lore that never leads to allusion-overload, has a crackling energy that's enlivening. The Specials is one-note, and yet that one-note is a strong one that reaps consistent laughs, as with U.S. Bill, a dumb-guy-says-dumb-things caricature whose non-sequitur idiocy is nonetheless hilarious, be it his opining about cocktail punch "Some things have flavors that taste good on your tongue, dontcha think?" or crazily cackling at a shadow on the wall behind his mother's head that makes it look like she's wearing a hat. Most amazing about Gunn's deconstructionist work, however, is that via the profane Amok—a desperate misfit with borderline rape-fantasy sexual hang-ups—he manages the superhuman feat of making Jamie Kennedy mildly amusing.

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Posted by ahillis at May 3, 2012 2:05 PM