The Normals: Side Effects May Include Being a Jerk

11/14/2012 4:00 AM |

The Normals
Directed by Kevin Connors

Billy Schine (Bryan Greenburg) is the ginger-bearded hero of this attempt to capture one man’s experience as a participant in a two-week trial of an antipsychotic drug. He joins fellow green-clad “normals” Gretchen (Jess Weixler), Rodney (Reg E. Cathey), and Lannigan (Frederick Weller) at a secluded testing facility. (They filmed it at Creedmore, an abandoned mental hospital in Queens.) He begins the trial cheerily enough, chatting up the nurse, doctor, and blood technician during processing, much to their institutional irritation. But things take a slow, confusing turn in the dark and bizarre second half of the film.

Greenburg is the straight man to an entire cast of banana men. Weller plays his self-centered actor roommate, a real asshole, who’s just a tad too obnoxious to be funny. Sameer (Debargo Sanyal), an effeminate Pakistani, thinks he can taste his tongue. He reluctantly explains it tastes like semen, not that he knows what semen tastes like, because he’s not gay, but he knows what it smells like. Salty, right? He appeals to Weixler for confirmation.

These characters start out so bizarre that as the film progresses it’s hard to tell if they’re experiencing side effects of the drug or if they’re all just freaks to begin with. Many of them express a desire to feel something, including Greenburg, whose character is escaping a mediocre existence in New York City, living in a grungy apartment, plagued by debt collectors and seemingly unemployed. Characters try to guess his profession: writer? Artist? Actor? No, no, no, he answers, without explanation. Greenburg portrays Schine as a lost, purposeless funny man: the guy who was friends with everyone in high school but grows up and doesn’t make much of himself or his life. He’s endearing, relatable and frankly kind of lovable.

Punctuated by a bizarre news story about a murderer with a tumor that looks like Jesus Christ (played by director Kevin Connors), and commercials about products like the Shake Weight and prescription drugs with long lists of possible side effects, the film alludes to some darker musings on the pharmaceutical industry. However, writer Christopher Ciancimino admitted they left most of the heavy-duty philosophy and emotional baggage in the novel by David Gilbert. Ciancimino said at a post-screening Q&A that he didn’t think it would be a difficult adaptation, but trying to turn such an internal story into a film was harder than he expected. With a budget of roughly a million dollars, the film is an impressive feat.

Opens November 16