A Different Man, Sort Of

A Different Man

A black body transformation comedy about the importance mankind places on its looks, while also refracting that self-obsession into a satire of the vanity of actors, A Different Man (Aaron Schimberg, 2024) may carry all the snark and shock of a classic A24 project but is salvaged by the tightness of its construction, backing up its savage tone with the aesthetic chops to match. 

Sebastian Stan stars as Edward, a jumpy, deformed man trying to make it as an actor. He lives with the burden of his unfortunate physical appearance every day: people staring at him on the subway, mean jokes and barbs and a lack of feminine touch. As for his career, his only roles seem to be in office awareness videos about treating your disfigured colleagues with kindness. (One key tip: ask them how they are!)

With his flat falling apart and his career flatlining, Edward’s prospects are dim. But two bright spots emerge: the kindness of his aspiring playwright neighbour Ingrid (Renate Reinsve) and a potential life-changing treatment. Here Schimberg embraces the body horror potential of the concept, using impressive make-up and slow and steady camera movements — reverse zooms, slow pans, surveillance-like close-ups — to depict Edward’s transformation into, well, Sebastian Stan. 

Particularly noteworthy is Umberto Smerilli’s throwback score, evoking the best of Jerry Goldsmith in its jazz elements, dissonant chords and evocative energy. 

The noir and body horror elements heighten the sardonic streak at the heart of the project, which slowly morphs into a bitterly-cutting and funny experience. While there is a certain sense of randomness at play in some of the more shocking scenes, it’s saved by a deep, multilayered irony, not just “tackling” this “problematic” subject matter, but confronting it head-on and turning the joke around. 

Everything changes once Edward is a “normal-looking,” conventionally handsome white man. Of course, he becomes a real estate agent! Yet with his new identity, he auditions to play a fictional version of Edward in Ingrid’s new play — all about the man he used to be. But he is wickedly upstaged by the fantastically buoyant Oswald — played by Adam Pearson, a British actor living from neurofibromatosis. 

Oswald is everything the old Edward is not, a charismatic and witty polymath, a ladies’ man, the talk of the town, breezing past his physical appearance with sheer force of personality alone. Edward may have been born to play Edward, but now he cannot compete with the “real deal.” Soon it becomes clear that this is not a film about deformity but the acting classes’ infinite capacity for vanity. When it comes to the perfect role, soon all concern about physical appearance is beside the point. 

Edward is told that he has the same nervous energy as Woody Allen. The New York auteurs’ fingerprints are also all over Aaron Schimberg’s snappy screenplay, which allows us to imagine days, weeks, months, and even years, passing by between each subsequent scene. Characters can change from moment to moment, but thanks to the snappiness of the dialogue, replete with witty cultural touchstones, and the natural presence of the cast, it always feels believable. 

And I’m always happy to give evidently talented actors a second chance. While I found The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, 2021) to be insufferable, Renate Reinsve is revelatory as a seemingly caring playwright who quickly morphs into a self-absorbed, morally unethical know-it-all, able to move between playfulness and casual cruelty with ease. A successful career in Hollywood is a dead cert. Good.