A successful debut can be a curse for any filmmaker, and they don’t come much splashier than “One Cut of the Dead.” Produced on the cheap with a no-name cast, Shinichiro Ueda’s inventive zombie comedy achieved phenomenal word-of-mouth buzz after its initial release in 2017, eventually earning over 1,000 times its original budget.

It was always going to be an impossible act to follow, and his sophomore feature — after sharing a directing credit on “Aesop’s Game” earlier this year — is a let-down so inevitable it barely even comes as a disappointment. “Special Actors” shares the plucky DIY spirit of its predecessor, but misses its structural playfulness, poignancy and knowing humor. If it’s not quite dead on arrival, it doesn’t feel very special either.

Ueda once again works with mostly unknown actors; Ayu Kitaura, who appeared in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows” at the age of 11, is the closest the film has to a famous star. Perhaps stung by the accusations of plagiarism lobbed at “One Cut of the Dead,” Ueda devised the story from scratch this time after an intensive workshop with his cast, which has allowed him to tailor the roles to each performer, though perhaps at the expense of proper characterization.

Special Actors (Supesharu Akutazu)
Run Time 109 mins.
Opens OCT. 18

The nervy Kazuto Osawa plays a fictionalized version of himself: a hapless actor, also named Kazuto, with an unfortunate habit of fainting under pressure. At night, he retreats to his one-room apartment and consoles himself with a repeat viewing of his favorite childhood movie, a low-budget superhero flick called “Rescueman” that Ueda re-creates with evident relish, right down to the bad Japanese dubbing.

With his pasty complexion and ever-present stress toy, Kazuto doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a hero, yet he gets a chance to become one after a chance reunion with his kid brother, Hiroki (Hiroki Kono). The latter has been AWOL since their mother’s funeral, but is now working for the eponymous Special Actors, a talent agency with a difference. Rather than take on ordinary roles, these performers orchestrate the kind of elaborate ruses that, in a different film, would get them labelled as con artists.

Kazuto is inducted into the company via simple roles like acting as a plant during a comedy screening and convincing a young woman to break up with her ne’er-do-well boyfriend. But he’s soon signed up to a more ambitious production: To rescue a family-run inn from the clutches of the Musubiru, a religious cult with a mute leader and a peculiar rice cake obsession.

What follows is an amiable but rather flaccid caper comedy, in which the obvious contrivances and lack of polish keep you guessing about who — if anyone — is actually for real. Like Ueda’s debut, to which it invites constant comparison, “Special Actors” tries to turn its amateurishness to its advantage. The film keeps pulling back the curtain to show that there was more than meets the eye in scenes that seemed hokey on first viewing. But the biggest payoff takes a long time to arrive, and is a trifle unsatisfying when it does.

Some peppy performances can’t disguise the creakiness of the whole enterprise, underscored by excessive use of the same few jaunty music cues. Ueda may go on to make another film as delightful as his debut, but this glorified TV movie isn’t it.

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