Here we are, three weeks into January, and the Sundance Film Festival has delivered what promises to be the year’s most uncomfortable date movie: a grubby New York-set fable about a facially distinctive actor (modeled on Adam Pearson) who undergoes an experimental procedure that leaves him looking like Sebastian Stan — presumably an improvement, until he realizes that under the skin, he’s still the same miserable loser.
The kind of oddball satire only indie studio A24 would dare to produce, Aaron Schimberg’s “A Different Man” asks what it means to be “normal,” and whether, if we could wave a magic wand and “correct” those same aberrant qualities which set us apart, that’s really something we’d want. “Twilight Zone”-level weird at times, “A Different Man” suggests the bizart-house version of a Woody Allen movie, wherein traditional jokes have been axed in favor of long, cringe-inducing scenes between a nervous shlub named Edward (Stan, disguised to the point of unrecognizability) and the out-of-his-league neighbor on whom he has a crush (Renate Reinsve of “The Worst Person in the World”).
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If you’ve seen Schimberg’s previous feature, “Chained for Life,” or Jonathan Glazer’s out-there “Under the Skin,” then you’re already familiar with Pearson, a British actor whose unique appearance — the result of a condition called neurofibromatosis, incorrectly associated for years with “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick — made him just right for a handful of incredibly specific film roles.
Now comes Edward, the character Pearson was born to play. Except Schimberg casts Stan instead, hiding him behind an elaborate mask for much of the film. Makeup pro Mike Marino’s mostly convincing prosthetics replicate many of Pearson’s signature features — the asymmetrical brow, swollen lips and loose jowls — which inevitably invites the question why Schimberg didn’t simply ask Pearson to play Edward.
“Exactly!” the writer-director would surely reply, pleased to see that his thought-provoking project has audiences engaging with the kind of issues the looks-conscious film industry is still trying to wrap its head around. Here’s one, straight out of Schimberg’s script: “Do you cast someone with a condition even though it’s not the right fit?” And who gets to tell such stories anyway? (Schimberg, for the record, was born with a cleft palate and focuses much of his work on shifting cultural views of such conditions. To his credit, he imbues even the smallest supporting characters with the sense that their lives continue off-screen.)
With “A Different Man,” Schimberg attempts — and mostly succeeds, with deliciously awkward results — to cram a lifetime of thoughts about beauty and ugliness, attraction and disgust, identity and performance into a postmodern meta-film mold that few (apart from Charlie Kaufman, perhaps) have managed to make tolerable. Add to that Schimberg’s Brechtian way of cueing audiences to interrogate his choices as they go (the makeup is deliberately imperfect, the script brazenly self-conscious), and you get an exercise more appealing to film critics and academics than to an amusement-seeking public.
Embodying an aspiring playwright and not-especially-good actor, respectively, Reinsve and Stan could be two sides of the self-loathing character Nicolas Cage plays in “Adaptation”: artist and muse, splintered into separate personae, both struggling to find the appropriate/ethical/respectful way to communicate the experience of someone with a conspicuous physical deformity. Expecting the pair to also be romantic partners is asking a lot of a movie that crams a seminar’s worth of representation issues into two hours (which can feel like years, the way Schimberg draws out the discomfort).
“A Different Man” shares how it feels to be ogled and avoided by strangers as Edward rides the subway home, relying on Umberto Smerilli’s score to amplify our uneasy sense of identification. He startles Ingrid (Reinsve) the first time she sees him, moving in next door to his filthy apartment (there’s a disgusting black leak in his living room ceiling). But she shows no sign of unease when she stops by later that day to borrow detergent, which Edward isn’t sure how to interpret. Stan’s body language — stooped shoulders, hesitant gestures, ducked head — positions Edward as a pitiful character, which in turn is how Ingrid depicts him in a play written expressly for him to play the lead.
But before she can finish, Edward agrees to participate in a medical study that could potentially reverse his condition. (In reality, there’s no known cure for neurofibromatosis, and it’s a smart move on Schimberg’s part to keep the science/sci-fi to a minimum.) Soon enough, Edward’s face starts to peel — a gory process that involves stripping away Stan’s makeup to reveal the conventionally attractive mug underneath.
Suddenly, Edward has no trouble picking up women. He tells people that Edward died and invents a new name, Guy, landing a lucrative job in a real estate office. When he learns that Ingrid finished her play, he shows up to audition, bringing a mold of his old face and wearing it as a mask. The lead role was literally written for him, but he’s no longer right for the part. And then Pearson shows up, playing an upbeat, outgoing guy named Oswald who is the opposite of “Guy” in every way except one: He has the same face that Edward did, only more expressive.
“A Different Man” could have ended there, but Schimberg digs deeper, embracing the increasingly unhinged, high-concept absurdity that follows. Judging by the one screen credit pre-transformation Edward had to his name — a sensitivity-training video about working alongside people with facial differences — acting is not this guy’s calling. The audition finds this movie-star-handsome man going out for the same role that people with unconventional features seem ideally suited to play.
Whereas the cultural conversation can be suffocatingly one-sided on these issues, Schimberg invites all perspectives in a movie that risks offending so-called political correctness. “A Different Man” finds room for both Stan and Pearson to play characters with the same physiognomy, and it takes the bold route of making both men insufferable in different ways. Oswald is charming and charismatic to a fault, insinuating himself into the stage role Guy hoped to play.
Meanwhile, Reinsve delivers on the promise of her “Worst Person” performance, playing another casually seductive young woman with a capacity to hurt the things she loves. Shortly after meeting Guy, Ingrid throws herself at the actor (who’s the same person he was before in all but the most superficial sense). Once she gets him in bed, Ingrid asks Guy to put on the mask, adding still more layers to the film’s most vulnerable scene. Things get a bit more confused as “A Different Man” enters its final stretch, effectively testing the limits of Stan’s acting ability — whereas no one but Pearson could have played the doppelganger smiling him in the face.
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