In Japanese director Shin’ichirô Ueda’s follow-up to his well-received, zombie satire One Cut of the Dead, the director continues on his familiar path of the meta-textual. Special Actors follows a young man with near-debilitating social anxiety, who joins an unconventional acting troupe with his brother at the behest of his therapist — which ends up landing them at the center of a pernicious cult. Occasionally funny and sweet, this meta-comedy about overcoming your personal and professional demons is given the groundwork of a potentially hilarious premise. Unfortunately, it’s painfully stretched out over a nearly-two-hour runtime and driven down a tedious route (save for the last 20-30 minutes of the film), making Ueda’s second feature a victim of the sophomore slump.
Awkward and shy Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) can’t seem to catch a break. Though he dreams of being an actor, he is prone to fainting spells brought on by any stress, especially when dealing with confrontation. This not only hinders his acting abilities, but his ability to perform at his day job —which he is subsequently fired from. Behind on his rent payments, feeling lower than hopeless, and transfixed by the existence of boobs that he has never touched, a chance encounter with a street brawler changes everything. Though initially thought to be a drunken stranger enraged needlessly by a couple minding their own business, Kazuto is shocked to discover that the brawler is his brother — who has been hired by the boyfriend of the couple to seem tough in front of his girl. His brother reveals to Kazuto that he works for an acting agency called “Special Actors” in which clients hire actors for real-life situations.
At the encouragement of both his brother and his therapist, Kazuto joins the agency and enjoys surprising initial success and acceptance among his peers. However, the agency is soon sought out by a client wishing to save her sister and their family’s inheritance from the clutches of a brainwashing cult called Musubiru. The young woman reveals that, under the spell of Musubiru, her sister was convinced to hand over their family’s inn to be the cult’s new headquarters. Now, Kazuto and his Special Actors must infiltrate the cult masquerading as eager new members to expose it for what it really is, in order to save both the young woman’s sister and their inn.
Though buoyed by an endearing lightheartedness and confidence to the film-making, Special Actors is sorely lacking in what feels like any genuine stakes. Ultimately, the plot, though initially fresh, funny and full of potential, finds itself woefully uninteresting, partly due to the fact that the antagonists of the film don’t come off as dangerous, or even very intriguing. That’s what the entire film essentially boils down to: it’s not very interesting. The cult of Musubiru are merely a group of greedy con artists, the cult itself more quirky than threatening. The stakes of saving a family hotel are particularly low, the characters of the Special Actors are a ragtag group of theatre kids with no particularly discernible qualities; even our hero, Kazuto, falls flat, aside from his cheeky trait of being fixated on breasts (he carries around a tan stress ball to calm him down, because it reminds him of a boob).
At nearly two hours in length, and with nothing to latch onto until the aforementioned final 20 minutes of the film (which includes a series of laugh-out-loud physical gags), Special Actors is, unfortunately, mostly a chore to sit through. Scenes drag, conversations overstay their welcome, tensions fizzle due to low risk; none of which is helped by the overtly noticeable low production values and flat lighting, most of the best-looking scenes taking place at night. Of course, a low budget doesn’t have to be a hindrance, but when nothing else seems to be working, it’s hard not to notice the loose seams stringing it all together. Ultimately, a story about learning to believe in oneself is not given much more complexity beyond that. The meta-textual aspects are fairly simplistic, giving way to a twist in the end that, while surprising, doesn’t do much else than surprise, and Special Actors ends up far from the hilarious romp that it wants to be.
Special Actors enjoyed its Canadian Premiere at the virtual edition of Fantasia Festival 2020 on August 20th
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs