Emotions are one of the most defining aspects of our humanity. While other animals display emotions they are of paramount importance to people. Our general emotional state is frequently used to describe us such as ‘she is a happy person’ or ‘he is always depressed’. Medical science has made great strides in dealing with conditions that involve radical changes in emotions but still the basis of feelings are for the most part unknown. The latest film by film maker Harris Goldberg, ‘Numb’ considers a man with a serve case of what is known as ‘depersonalization disorder’. This is a recognized mental illness that is devastating to those afflicted as well as their friends and family. A person with this disorder is unable to feel normal emotions. The go through life on auto-pilot distanced from everyone around them. Other emotional disorders usually clinically present with extremes of feelings. People with Bi-Polar disorder have major mood swings. Depression can cloak a person with a constant shroud of darkness. In contrast people with depersonalization disorder or DPD feel nothing. Emotions are as abstract to them as color is to a blind person. The thought of not having any emotions may bring to mind Mr. Spock from Star Trek. As a Vulcan it was natural for them the repress their feelings. For a human being the lack of feelings is devastating. We are what we feel and without that able to emote a person is denied part of their humanity.
Harris Goldberg has been around as both a director and writer for awhile now. He takes on both jobs here in a fantastic fashion. In his writing career he did give the world both of the Deuce Bigalow flicks plus the awful Dana Carvey movie ‘The Master of Disguise’. While some may see that as a crime against humanity this film offers redemption. Nothing in his past scripts would give an indication that he could come up with such a compelling and well construction script as this one. Any writer worth their salt can create characters full of emotion. It takes true talent to come up with one that is devoid of feelings. Not only does Goldberg accomplish this arduous task he does so with flair. Even though the audience cannot empathize with the protagonist Goldberg gives us a glimpse into his life. It would have been impossible to take on a subject like this as a straight comedy. Films that make fun of a disability tend to be horrible. If the film was just a drama it would be in danger of becoming overly melodramatic. Goldberg wisely split the difference and combined the two genres. Many go for the comedy drama but have their films fall as both types of films. Goldberg was able to blend the two genres seamlessly with a brilliant script that will make you laugh and tug at the heart strings. Apparently Goldberg has suffered from this disorder and much of his script was borne from personal experience. This only adds to the intimacy of the story.
As a director Goldberg may not have a lot of experience but he has more than enough talent. Usually a director will quicken the pace of a film to heighten the emotional impact. In this film Goldberg slows things down to a snail’s pace. Many may think that this would result in a film that drags but to the contrary it works extremely well in this specific case. This must be what life is like for a person with DPD. Life drifts by without any highs or lows; it just plays out. Goldberg does not rely on the usual camera tricks or lighting effects in this film. He uses the camera as a voyeur giving the audience a view of one man’s struggle to be normal and accepted. One of the biggest strengths of the film is how it keeps the audience from wanting the main character to just snap out of it. The lack of emotions is so foreign to us that it is hard to understand why the character acts the way he does; why he just doesn’t do things right. The film is structured in such a way as to let the audience hold on to the fact that this is a disorder and he can’t help himself. The fact that Goldberg has DPD makes this work even more incredible. As a director he cannot have the same connection with his actors that other directors can maintain. It appears that this made him trust his actors more than usual. He sets the stage and places the camera and lets this highly talented cast tell the story. His main character knows that he is attracted to a young woman; what most people would call love. The problem is he can’t express it. This situation could have been a slapstick farce but in the hands of Mr. Goldberg it is a tender completely different kind of love story than you have ever seen.
Matthew Perry plays Hudson, a screen writer with DPD. As his drifts through life he is aware of the difference between himself and every other human being. While eating a meal with his writing partner Tom (Kevin Pollak) he picks up a folk and tells his friend that if Tom stabbed him in the eye with the folk we would not feel a thing. Hudson has no sense of danger. He is able to take his hands off the wheel of his car unaffected by the potential for a lethal accident. Above all else Hudson wants to be normal. He tries psychiatric therapy to no avail. The first doctor places him on medication that leaves him semi-conscious. He tries another doctor, Cheryl Blaine (Mary Steenburgen) she falls obsessively in love with him. He has a mental disorder but she is out right crazy. Things come to a head when Hudson meets a young woman, Sarah (Lynn Collins). He becomes aware of an attraction for her but is unable to demonstrate it. She understands and is supportive which makes Hudson even more concerned with getting better.
I have never been a big fan of ‘Friends’ but I was impressed with Matthew Perry’s work on ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Studio 60’. He is absolutely perfect for this role. Not only does he play Hudson as a person unable to feel he transforms he body as well. There is a flat, deadness to his eyes that is amazing to watch. He moves in a deliberate fashion unaffected by his surroundings. His innate comic timing is suppressed but he still has Hudson come across as an intelligent even witty person. Kevin Pollak is one of those actors who pop up in quirky films. He is as good in drama as he is with comedy and gets a chance here to show off his skills in both areas. In this film he displays a fantastic empathy for his friend. Lynn Collins does very well in her role as the girlfriend of a man unable to return her affection. She gives humanity to her presentation that is excellent.
Image as released this film on DVD and this is a very good thing. So many films like this go unnoticed without the marketing budget to compete with the bug flicks around. This is a simple, unassuming film that is a must watch by all.