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Sundance movie review: Good intentions can't save 'Different Man'

Sebastian Stan stars in "A Different Man." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sebastian Stan stars in "A Different Man." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- A Different Man, which premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, has good intentions and a lot of big ideas. Unfortunately, the film can't juggle all of them and winds up frustrating instead.

Edward (Sebastian Stan) has a facial deformity that requires frequent surgeries to manage growths obstructing hearing and vision. Edward's new neighbor, Ingrid (Renate Reinsve), comes over to get to know him but Edward fears she can't get beyond his appearance.

When Edward's doctor offers him the chance to participate in an experimental treatment, he jumps at the chance. The treatment causes his growths to literally peel from his face, leaving Stan's natural face underneath.

Edward creates an entirely new identity for himself as Guy, a real estate agent. That's the sort of premise that can be a logline for a movie. It certainly was similar to the festival description of the film.

Unfortunately, the film can't seem to focus its plot about Guy's journey and its statements about how society views people with different conditions. Writer/director Aaron Schimberg drops major plots as soon as he's done with them, but the series of events doesn't add up to much.

Renate Reinsve plays Ingrid in "A Different Man." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Renate Reinsve plays Ingrid in "A Different Man." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

When Guy moves into a new apartment, he tells the doctors for the treatment that Edward died by suicide. This gets the medical team out of the movie at this point, but there should have been an organic way to integrate the medical story into the rest of the film.

But already at this point, A Different Man has had bizarre tonal shifts. The peeling of Edward's face takes more than one scene and it is as graphic as a David Cronenberg movie.

Aaron Schimberg wrote and directed "A Different Man." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Aaron Schimberg wrote and directed "A Different Man." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

That's a sharp contrast to the tone thus far, which was heightened but not totally surreal. It was like our world but just a little off.

There'd been a bit of cringe comedy to that point, with random strangers waving to Edward. The police wake Edward up in the middle of the night knocking on the wrong door.

Sebastian Stan plays Edward/Guy in "A Different Man." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Sebastian Stan plays Edward/Guy in "A Different Man." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

An ice cream truck tries to pass a parked ambulance but why is an ice cream truck out in the middle of the night? Just being illogical isn't itself funny.

Plus, Edward acted in an HR video for businesses to teach their employees to treat colleagues with facial disfigurement sensitively. That video was comical for its misguidedness in "othering" the people with facial conditions in the guise of helping them.

Renate Reinsve stars in "A Different Man." File Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI
Renate Reinsve stars in "A Different Man." File Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI

But, it gets far more obscure. At first, Guy still struggles to adjust to his new face. He still wobbles like Edward, not used to having a face proportional to his body.

That would be interesting to explore but the film shifts focus again when Guy discovers that Ingrid has written a play about Edward. So he auditions for it.

A man acting in a play about his own life could be very derivative of Charlie Kaufman, but in that regard, Schimberg does have his own take.

Guy is performing Ingrid's impression of him, never revealing that he used to be Edward. Guy also saved a mask of his Edward face which he wears for the play. The lab made masks of his original face at the beginning, and his potential new one as part of the treatment.

Ingrid seems to fetishize Edward. This leads to a bizarre love scene, but could still be a powerful story if it followed through. If Guy found out Ingrid actually liked Edward now that it's too late, that would be a movie.

But, A Different Man shifts focus again when actor Oswald (Adam Pearson) visits the show because he heard about auditions for actors with facial disfigurements. Ingrid decides it would be better to have someone with an actual facial disfigurement play Edward.

Ironically, A Different Man itself put prosthetics on Stan to play Edward. However, the film gives Pearson a major role. That, plus a willingness to explore how the world sees people with facial disfigurement, are noble endeavors.

However, the only way the film addresses those issues is by allowing a lot of random characters to rant about how society views people. It is poignant that Oswald is so gregarious he wins everyone over, while Guy sees what Edward's life might have been like had he had Oswald's confidence.

But, there was nothing wrong with the way Edward was either. He has every right to be introverted, and he was still friendly to neighbors and strangers.

The story goes further and further off the rails with several more plot twists. Guy is confused about his new identity and his old feelings, but he just flails around trying to find things to do and ways to connect with people.

At one point Guy literally flails around at another character.

Movies with wildly different tones and themes can work, as evidenced by the films of Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarnatino, Daniels and others. A Different Man goes for it but falls apart long before it's finished switching things up.

A24 will release A Different Man.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.