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A Different Man (2024)

“A Different Man” reunites filmmaker Aaron Schimberg with his “Chained for Life” leading man, Adam Pearson. If you think deeply about it, the new film, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, is actually incredibly sweet in its attempt to normalize the actor’s deformity caused by neurofibromatosis type 1. For the uninitiated, though, it’s more like some mashup of “Face/Off,” “The Elephant Man” and “Beauty and the Beast.” It may look like body horror, but it’s a comedy . . . maybe?

Sebastian Stan plays Edward, an aspiring actor afflicted with the same disfiguring condition as Mr. Pearson. We first meet him on the set of a corporate video intended for D.E.I. training. Suffice it to say, he seems doomed to be typecast as the circus freak – reminiscent of Mr. Pearson’s nonspeaking acting debut in “Under the Skin.” He lives in the typical New York City apartment, complete with a leaky ceiling, a dead rat and a suicidal neighbor.

Ingrid, played by Renate Reinsve aka “The Worst Person in the World,” causes damage to Edward’s front door while moving into the adjacent unit. She repairs his door, bandages a cut he’s sustained and borrows laundry detergent from him. Upon learning about her aspiration to become a playwright, he gifts her with a manual typewriter he found on the street. She in turn promises to write a part for him.

Edward participates in a clinical trial that can potentially cure his condition. Here the film turns full body horror for a minute, which is probably what got A24 to sign the checks. He peels globs of skin off his face. A bloody mess ensues. Then one day he wakes up looking like, um, Sebastian Stan. He pretends Edward has unalived himself like that depressed dude on his floor, and assumes a new identity as a fledging realtor named Guy.

One day he happens upon Ingrid, so he follows her to a theater where, incidentally, she’s auditioning actors for a play based on her interactions with Edward and unresolved feelings for him. But now that Edward is out of the picture, she passes the piece off as something wholly original and not a fictionalized personal account. Guy happens to have a mask made of Edward’s face still laying about; and the part is in his bag.

That is until Oswald, played by Mr. Pearson, swoops in. Ingrid is immediately taken. Though Oswald and Edward suffer the same condition, their responses to it are like night and day. Mr. Schimberg shows how discreet stares from fellow passengers on the subway and random strangers insisting they’ve met before have all steered Edward to keep to himself. Oswald, on the other hand, is a jolly charmer who has a way with the ladies in spite of his deformities. Oswald comes for the part and gets the girl, too; and Guy’s sense of entitlement causes him to spiral.

The well-meaning intent behind it all is seemingly for the disfigured to embrace their predicaments and not ruminate about the coulda, woulda, shoulda. In that, it’s admirable. While Ingrid learns in due time to not judge a book by its cover, it’s quite a choice for the film to eschew that “Beauty and the Beast”/“Cyrano de Bergerac”/“The Phantom of the Opera”/“The Nutty Professor” narrative entirely. We don’t ever get a sense of how Ingrid reaches her epiphany. There’s no clear lesson for those curious and quietly disgusted onlookers.

This is a star-making turn for Mr. Stan, who plays Edward, Guy and Guy as an acting novice poorly portraying the fictionalized Edward. He gets all of the disparate nuances across while still remaining one cohesive character. He makes it look so easy, too. “A Different Man” is an excellent showcase for this actor’s incredible range.


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