Looks can be deceiving in A Different Man, writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s endearingly twisted take on actors, playwrights, egos and the plight of the profoundly disfigured.
Like the famous “Eye of the Beholder” episode of The Twilight Zone, in which humans turn out to be society’s freakish outcasts, this dark comedy suggests what happens when an aspiring thespian afflicted with neurofibromatosis manages to find a miracle cure, only to long for the life he had when he was still deformed.
A Different Man
The Bottom Line
An amusing and thought-provoking face-off.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Renate Reinsve, Adam Pearson
Director, screenwriter: Aaron Schimberg
1 hour 52 minutes
The thesp in question — a nebbishy New York actor named Edward, or Ed — is played with tongue-in-cheek gravitas by Sebastian Stan, who dons several layers of prosthetics (courtesy of ace makeup designer Mike Marino) until peeling them away to reveal his true face. But that hardly gives Ed the life he bargained for, in a film that piquantly questions how others look at us and, more importantly, how we look at ourselves.
Schimberg explored a similar theme, albeit in a more artsy fashion, in his 2018 behind-the-scenes drama Chained for Life. That film co-starred Adam Pearson, who many may remember from his haunting sequence opposite Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, and who winds up stealing the show here as a totally charming and nonchalant threat to Ed’s newfound existence.
The fact that Pearson is stricken with neurofibromatosis, and that Stan wore tons of makeup to mimic that condition, may raise a few eyebrows. And yet A Different Man is very much about art imitating life and vice-versa, contemplating the different masks — whether real or artificial — we put on when going out into the world.
At first, the story plays out like your typical NYC indie dramedy, with Ed living in a grubby one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn while trying to make it as an actor. He has a nosy super, at least one neighbor who hates him, and there’s a leak in his ceiling that grows so big it risks swallowing him up. The catch is that Ed’s disfigured state makes him completely stand out, at least to the viewer. For those who already know him, he comes across as just another shy and curmudgeonly New Yawka.
Things start looking up when a new neighbor, the radiant Ingrid (Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World), moves in next door. Like Ed, she’s an aspiring artist — a playwright, in fact — and the two soon hit it off, even if Ed is very much inhibited by his looks. Ingrid is more open-minded and curious, and one novel aspect of Schimberg’s script is how, unlike in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, nearly everyone Ed meets treats him with respect and compassion.
The film’s first half is filled with well-observed tidbits of dystopian New York humor, whether it’s unhinged people losing it on the street, weary subway riders ignoring Ed on his ride back home or, in one amusingly tragic scene, a Mister Softee truck arriving just as a neighbor’s corpse is wheeled out of the building. “He reminds me of Woody Allen,” someone remarks about Ed, and if it weren’t for his face, he would be just another sad sack moping around the lonely city.
The failing actor’s humdrum life takes a major turn when he agrees to participate in an experimental drug program that could cure his condition. After several scenes of Cronenberg-esque body horror, he starts peeling away his tumors like a snake shedding its skin, transforming into a brand new person with Stan’s well-defined face.
You would think this would all be for the better, but as A Different Man goes on to reveal, things actually get worse. Ed soon comes to miss the man he once was, especially when Pearson’s character steps into the picture and very casually hijacks his life, including Ed’s burgeoning love affair with Ingrid.
That and other plot mechanics in Schimberg’s screenplay can seem a bit over-the-top, particularly when Ed begins to lose his mind in the third act as everything unravels. Still, the story’s twists and turns maintain our interest throughout, with the narrative taking on a cleverly deconstructed play-within-a-film format reminiscent, at times, of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.
The antics are captured in grainy naturalistic visuals by Wyatt Garfield (The Kitchen) and backed by a score from Umberto Smerilli that shifts between indie vibes and the classic melodies of Hollywood B-flicks. A Different Man shifts between several genres as well, but Schimberg manages to tie things neatly together by asking the same question, in various ways, until the very last scene: What’s in a face?