As I was preparing to pop this DVD in, I was doing my usual
preparation, familiarizing myself with the filmmaking team. I noticed
that Numb was written and directed by Harris Goldberg.
The name meant nothing to me, so I looked up his page at IMDb and got
The earliest known examples of human writing date back to
about 3000 or 3500 BC, when three written languages seem to have
suddenly emerged almost simultaneously in Sumeria, Egypt and the Indus
Valley. In all the time since, humans across the
globe have expelled an immeasurable quantity of words and symbols, yet it could reasonably be argued from Goldberg's IMDb page
that he is the worst writer in that entire scope of humankind's
possibly excepting those two guys who wrote Epic Movie and a couple of anonymous
Mesopotamians who collaborated on
the first primitive script about a rebel cop who lives by
his own code rather than the code of Hammurabi.
Once they got a written code of law, the Mesopotamians were big
"law and order" guys, but I can't really blame their more unorthodox
cops for not wanting to fill out the paperwork. Forms are so
time-consuming when you have to use a chisel.
As for Goldberg, he wrote The Master of Disguise, an ill-fated Dana Carvey
vehicle about a man named Pistachio who can do a lot of voices and
impressions, many very similar to the ones normally done by Dana
Carvey, but also others which seem to have been inspired by studying Salvador Dali
paintings while on LSD. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film pulled off
the rare perfect score - unanimously negative reviews from the top critics.
To be honest, it may have been a bit overrated at 0%, but our primitive human mathematics
can't find a way to describe a percentage less than zero. Let's just
say it was a very low zero, sort of like the showbiz equivalent of
absolute zero. The 25 major critics who panned it didn't
withhold their recommendations with some ambivalence. They crushed it. Ebert
awarded a single star. The BBC described a screening without a single
laugh. The Hollywood Reporter said, "About
as unfunny as unfunny gets. Even its fart jokes are below the industry
standard." The New York Daily News said, "The
film contains no good jokes, no good scenes."
You can imagine the level of enthusiasm
I had for the latest effort from the same writer.
It turns out that I was very, very
wrong. Goldberg is actually a good writer, and it's an excellent script:
quite funny, but also straight from the
Here's the story.
Goldberg was a child prodigy, entertainment style. He lied about
his age in order to become a stand-up comedian at age 14, and he sold
Hollywood-style script when he was only 21. Over the ensuing years
(he's only 35 now), he was rewarded so handsomely for writing
artificial high-concept crap that he just kept churning it out,
pocketing the checks and (presumably) ignoring the reviews. Inside
of his head, however, he was nurturing a story worth telling. His
own. He suffered from a type of mental disorder called
depersonalization, in which his life didn't seem real to him, as if he
were watching himself on TV all the time. He went through several
shrinks. Some of them prescribed various pharmacological therapies,
often in direct contradiction to what others had recommended earlier.
One female shrink fell in love with him. Meanwhile, he loved and lost
his soul-mate for a variety of reasons centering
around his own lack of self-esteem. Somewhere along the road, Goldberg
realized that his own existence was filled with the very kind of
comedy he should be writing, the kind that derives its humor from real
life. He wrote Numb, a thinly-disguised autobiography, in which he
changed very little in moving the story from his life to the page,
other than the names of the characters. He told the truth, even when
it portrayed him as a fool.
The suits were sufficiently impressed
to buy the script and to let Goldberg direct it himself.
TV superstar Matthew Perry got his
hands on the script and aggressively pursued the lead. Goldberg wasn't
sure Perry was the right guy to be his on-screen alter ego, but he came to
trust Perry's talent and his desire to deliver the role without
falling back on Chandler Bing. Goldberg was right about that, as he
was right about the merit of his script. Perry worked hard to tone
down his own personality, to study the character, and to listen to the
writer/director. He delivered an effective and affective performance
in a difficult role as a peculiar, distant, but not unlikable man.
There is some sad news within the
success story. When Goldberg was writing crap, he was making a lot of
money for himself and his studios. Even the ignominious Master of
Disguise grossed $40m. Now that he has created something worthwhile,
he can't fit it into a commercial niche. Numb made the rounds of many film festivals,
including Cannes, and it drew some very enthusiastic plaudits from
IMDb commenters for its honest and accurate portrayal of
depersonalization disorder, as well as for its ability to touch people
personally, and even for its entertainment value. But no
distributors were willing to gamble on a theatrical run. Too personal.
Too small. So Numb will be a straight-to-DVD film, to be released in
May of 2008, more than a year after it premiered at Tribeca.
It deserves better, but that's our world. People are saving their
hard-earned dollars for Master of Disguise 2: the Wrath of Pistachio.