“There’s all this emotional honesty and the character is dealing with a real human dilemma, and then you get slammed by critics for not being a bloated film that they’ve been giving bad reviews to for 10 years.” So says Mark A. Altman, producer of The Specials, on one of two commentary tracks on the film’s new “specials” edition DVD. He’s talking about The Strobe, a.k.a. Ted Tilderbrook (Thomas Hayden Church), the leader of the Specials, a team of superheroes who do more arguing and backstabbing than actual crime fighting.
Strobe is having a difficult time. He’s just found out his wife, Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), is having an affair with fellow team member and co-founder of the Specials, the Weevil (Rob Lowe). While screenwriter James Gunn (who co-stars as Minute Man) and director Craig Mazin might be soliciting for Ted, his “emotional honesty” is lost in a movie that can’t decide if it’s a satire, homage or something else entirely. Watching The Strobe as he struggles with decisions — should he go back to the gang, find a new gang, forgive his wife and his friend — one doesn’t know how to feel. Church makes you want to empathize, without a trace of comedy in his performance, but the broad comedy also tends to create distance.
Apparently, the production suffered from ego problems on set, similar to those bothering the characters. While this is not clear on the commentary track completed when the film first went to video (included on this DVD), Altman, Gunn, Mazin, and effects supervisor Mojo, the new commentary — featuring Gunn and Brewster, has him burning bridges left and right, accusing Jamie Kennedy of severe bigheadedness, Lowe of dumping the film after winning his role on The West Wing, and first-time director Mazin for not understanding Gunn’s own “vision” for the film.
These might seem like excuses, if they weren’t all so obviously and painfully true. Gunn starts his commentary thus: “The movie [didn’t turn out] the way we envisioned. It was going to [have] much more of a naturalistic, almost documentary feel to it, handheld cameras and just very natural acting. And it ended up being a little bit more sitcom-y and general.” Gunn is generous; the film like a Saturday Night Live sketch, with most of the actors completely overdoing every scene.
Kennedy, as Amok, a Special who can break down antimatter, is a prime culprit, as are Mike Schwartz as U.S. Bill and Jim Zulevic as Mr. Smart. They’re cute characters, these last two, but the performances are broad compared to the low key efforts by Lowe, Brewster, and Church. Lowe, who mastered this understated style in Wayne’s World (1992) and Tommy Boy (1995), is a joy to watch as the Weevil.
Gunn’s disappointment in the final cut is obvious. Though he notes that Kennedy and Marin assisted in starting his writing career, he’s reserved in discussing their parts in this project. “There were power struggles,” he notes, apparently resulting in fisticuffs between Gunn and Kennedy outside an Astro Burger. In the end, Brewster sums up: “It’s hard to work with friends.”
Such details make Gunn and Brewster’s commentary the only reason to buy this new DVD. You’ve got to hear to believe Brewster’s caning of Jessica Alba, once engaged to Michael Weatherly, who appears briefly in the film. “If you ever want to punish yourself for some unforgivable sin,” she says, “have dinner with Jessica Alba.” She also spends the final half hour of the commentary explaining why she felt forced to end her friendship with Gunn, with whom she “did what adults do” on the Specials set: “You were in a cult,” she explains. “You were all loony-eyed and you did a lot of shoulder touching.” Brewster’s candidness is hilarious and refreshing. She recalls costar Jordan Ladd’s boyfriend troubles onset, Judy Greer’s dating disasters, Kennedy’s ability to score with chicks, and Lowe’s tricks for making himself as pretty as possible on screen.
Though Brewster rather likes the film now, Gunn is less sanguine, noting that what’s on the screen is not, in his mind, particularly special. His discontent notwithstanding, the film does have some fun moments. During Weevil’s interview with the Verdict (Weatherly), the leader of a rival hero gang, Verdict asserts that Weevil has something every hero needs, the ability to make people like him. Weevil’s suitably chuffed by such a statement, but Verdict attempts to convince him further that a position with the Crusaders could be good for him: “Think of all the pussy, Weevil,” he says, to which the dimwitted Weevil responds, “What’s a pussy-weevil?” Gunn’s impressed by this moment, too, as Weevil’s line was an improv by Lowe: “Damn, I wish I’d written that,” he says.
Hilarious, too, are the testimonials by gang members, recounting their history and their break-up. Ms. Indestructible wonders, “Every morning I look down and I’m wearing boots with lightning bolts on them and I think, where did I make the wrong turn?” And Weevil remembers, “My old man used to say that love is what happens when you fail at living life on your own.” These moments are why The Specials seems silly enough to want to show to friends (who doesn’t want to see Michael Weatherly dressed like a giant sewer grate?). But imagining what the film could have been had not so many egos not screwed it makes for frustration.