“Special Unit” film review — Offensive, funny, and treats people with disabilities as people (foibles included)

(This film is now available on Amazon for rent or purchase.)

Controversy always swirls around non-disabled actors playing disabled folks. See “Glee” or “Me Before You” and others. Not to mention the often inaccurate and usually underrepresented presence of non-physical disability in film and TV. Should the goal be inclusion? Reflections of real people? Or just as simple as disabled people who can be funny, self-deprecating, and even the hero of the story, no matter how silly that story is?

Comedian Christopher Titus has written, directed, and starred in a new independent film that attempts to be a broad comedy with major and minor characters who just happen to have disabilities. From me he gets an A+ for the attempt, and a B- for the comedy. Definitely see this film, because it has some genuine laughs and a whole helluva lot to talk about after. Not to mention, that if enough people watch it, perhaps it will be picked up as a 30-minute TV or streaming series (I know that this was attempted a few years back). In a 30-min TV series format, I think the situations and issues Titus and his team clearly have knowledge of and a passion for can be expanded in scope, but tightened in execution. But I digress…

The film opens with a montage of historic and modern news stories showing statistics and attitudes and policies regarding disability throughout the years. We then get introduced to Detective Garrett Fowler, a drunk, crooked cop and wisecracking asshole (Titus) in a too-long, almost 15 minute, story setup. Captain Wynn (Billy Gardell) is his superior who, you guessed it, is sick of Fowler’s antics. To punish him, he and Mayor Tara Small (Cynthia Watros) assign him to deal with the outcome of an ACLU lawsuit where some disabled folks passed the Police Academy but were not allowed on the force.

(Let’s get the terminology stuff out of the way. The terms “wobblies,” “retarded,” “normal,” “spaz,” “midget,” “extra special retarded,” “mongoloid,” and “short bus with a siren” and others are used in this movie. I don’t speak that way nor do I condone it. But this movie does speak that way, and it reflects the reality that many people, no matter how wrong, speak that way too. If you are offended by these words, I ask that you turn that tendency off for 1 hour and 41 minutes and, if at the end, you are still upset then I’m cool with thoughtful advocacy against what this film was attempting. Personally I wasn’t terminally offended by this film.)

Detective Fowler interviews the candidates for the four disabled cop slots in one of the funniest scenes of the film. A long series of applicants interact with a drunk, boorish Fowler in some quick shots. At the end of this scene, we understand he has only selected 3 candidates, and the forth self-selects by reflecting (a stereotypical) savant ability in front of Captain Wynn. The four members of Fowler’s team are now Sophie (Debbie Lee Carrington, with a long acting and stuntwoman bio who is a little person), Morgan (Michael Aronin, a renowned comedian and speaker who has CP), Mac (Tobias Forest known for “Weeds” and “The Sessions” who uses a wheelchair), and Alvin (David Figoli, an actor producer who doesn’t have a disability but who plays a man who is a savant).

“School is where most lifetime psychosis is created.”

In the “before” state of Fowler as an asshole, he treats his four recruits as if they are only good for janitorial work. This is a sore point in the disability community, and is well reflected in this scene. But the team does some judo with their assignment and really pulls one over on Fowler in a clever way, forcing him to grudgingly let them do real cop work.

“I don’t get to say I have a ‘nice’ deficiency. I don’t get to say I am etiquette challenged. I am an asshole.”

I won’t spoil too much, but the story is simple and a little predictable. Essentially the team is underestimated, they save the day in a big way (a silly, unlikely, but big and broad way and a little scary considering recent mass shootings). The team is used as PR props but refuse to be used as props, and Fowler quickly grows and treats them as equals and must rely on them to save him, and the day. Trailer:

Here are some things I love about this film

It is completely fearless in how it uses the “R” word and other putdowns to reflect how, unfortunately, many people still talk. But it uses this discomfort for a purpose. Perhaps the execution of the film doesn’t earn this discomfort, perhaps it does. That’s up to you.

The film has occasional laugh-out-loud sight and verbal gags, without fearing having people with disabilities be both the brunt of the joke and the deliverers of the jokes to each other and to people without disabilities. In other words, I love the fact that Titus is letting us laugh at and with people with disabilities, just like we would with (or at) anyone.

For example, when we first meet Morgan, a hung over and recently vomited-on-his-shirt Fowler talks slowly and infantilizes the recruits with simple language. Morgan says sarcastically “Don’t worry. We’re all wearing diapers. We can interview while we pee… Is that puke on your shirt?” and gets the upper hand.

“Is that puke on your shirt?”

Similarly Sophie, who is kick ass with firearms, says “You’re so out of line! And retard ain’t gonna cut it. I am a LITTLE PERSON… With a gun!”

Fowler himself, in what will be a controversial speech, basically tells the team that if they want to be cops, getting called a retard is going to be the least of their worries. But at the same time, he knows his own emotional disability, and takes the position that he doesn’t have an excuse for it and says “I don’t get to say I have a ‘nice’ deficiency. I don’t get to say I am etiquette challenged. I am an asshole.”

Mac uses a wheelchair, but his real disability is his tinfoil hat and paranoia. Later in the film, after the predicable turnaround and respect that Fowler now has for his team, Mac says “As much as I don’t trust you or the NRA or coconut water, I realize that you’ve helped us all. And I’ve disarmed the C4 under your (Dodge) Charger.”

“Retard is not gonna cut it. I am a LITTLE PERSON. With a gun!”

There are some genuinely funny and charming moments in this movie. I think that most people will get the jokes, but people with disabilities or who have family members with disabilities will get them even more. Ironically, the latter groups could be the most offended. But again, while this is not the perfect movie, it certainly treats all of the outlandish characters (disabled or not) as pretty equal buffoons. Except that in this story the disabled folks are the heros and the typical folks are more often the buffoons and butt of the jokes.

Even the “teaching” material is pretty funny and not that preachy. For example, in a press conference scene the “typical” people in politics and the press are acting the fool. The newly heroic officers really pull off some funny costumes and interactions. Some unexpected stuff really shows the team as human — not disabled human, but human — and then a cool speech seems kind of preachy. Until you realize what that speech is and who really said it first. It becomes an unexpected punchline that really made me smile.

“As much as I don’t trust you or the NRA or coconut water, I realize that you’ve helped us all. And I’ve disarmed the C4 under your charger.”

Here are some things I found challenging in this film

The start of the film has a really long setup about how Fowler is an asshole, crooked, screwed up, a hard drinker, and has an ex-girlfriend who is the mayor. It’s a full 15 mins before we get to meet the people who will be the “Special Unit” of the title. It was a bit too long for me.

The tightness of the montage scene where the drunk Fowler was interviewing recruits was great. Many of the other scenes could have used that kind of speed and tightness. And the relationship between Tara the mayor and Fowler is a bit contrived. It is OK to be contrived in this genre, but just a tad more emotion or even reasons for them to get back together would have been a nice touch.

Sophie and Morgan’s love scene was too short and not bawdy enough considering Titus’ reputation!

And Billy Gardell plays the stereotype of the brash captain well, but is a bit underused. Finally, the movie has some kick ass songs (original songs, I believe). But some of the music underneath some of the scenes with dialog seem to be from a 1980’s VHS film. Not horrible, but a bit distracting.

Is / should this be a TV series? And was “Special Unit” worth it?

There are so many themes and points in this film from a disability advocacy perspective that are touched on but not fully realized. Should this be a 30 minute TV series or streaming series? I think so, because the tightness and focus of just dealing with one or two issues at once in a truly comedic way and having a chance to develop the characters more deeply would be really cool. I understand that this project was previously developed as a pilot for a 30 minute show (that, at least a few weeks ago, you could still see on YouTube). Perhaps this movie will push some folks with money to support expanding and deepening the comedy and the issues — and the employment of great disabled actors and actresses — through a TV series.

Even if that doesn’t happen, this film is a great effort. The humor doesn’t always hit, but when it does it is quite funny. You should give this one a chance, and support it. Because even if you don’t like it or even if you are offended by it, this project does not treat people with disabilities as second class actors or people. If the jokes happen to fall flat for you, at least you can say “disabled people can try and be funny and fail at it.” For me, more than enough jokes hit and more than enough story (no matter how predicable) was there to make it worth a paid download and a bowl of popcorn.

Available on iTunes (and I assume other platforms) on October 11, 2017. 1 Hour 41 mins. Now also available on Amazon for rent or purchase.

Originally published at blog.dadsofdisability.com.