Self/Less – presumably a working title nobody ever got around to fixing – takes Ben Kingsley and turns him into Ryan Reynolds. If you find that trick impressive, you should give me a hundred dollar bill and see what I do with that.
Kingsley plays Damien, a millionaire architect who is dying of cancer. He’s approached by an ominous British scientist named Albright who developed the technique of “shedding” or moving someone’s consciousness from one body to another. The body Kingsley is eyeing belongs to Reynolds, and after a moment or two in a souped up MRI machine, voila! The Faustian pact is complete.
It’s not that Self/Less is a bad film. It’s just aggressively dull in that Hollywood way that confuses inoffensiveness for progressivism and predictability for classical storytelling. The script, for instance, is perfectly serviceable. It should be, given all the excellent films from which it steals. Somewhere in here are moments that absolutely killed in The Bourne Identity, Total Recall, North by Northwest, and countless others. If they worked as well I wouldn’t complain so much, but it’s hard to see Damien discover his newfound fighting skills (one of the immutable laws of film physics states that all new bodies/identities/personas are imbued with instinctive combat training) and not compare these sluggishly edited tussles with the whiplash brutality of the Bourne series.
Regarding North by Northwest, this film desperately wants to be described as Hitchcockian. It wants it so much I almost feel bad. Damien is thrown into a fish out of water story that eventually involves a beautiful woman and her child. He solves clues, evades snide British baddies, and skips from Midwestern locales to mansions on a road trip adventure seemingly torn straight out of the fifties. My guess is that if you took every memo regarding this film from the moment it was conceived until it was finished, the word “Hitchcockian” would appear on about 70 percent of them. Never mind whether the movie can, or should want, to live up to Hitchcock’s standard. The old school romp leaves almost no time for the film to explore its heady premise about identity, youth, wealth, and death. At some point it just becomes an action movie and all that goes out the window.
And I hate to be unkind to Mr. Reynolds—he seems like a nice guy—but his performance is so bland that to emphasize the point with an exclamation mark seems obscene. We are expected to root for him merely because he is the kind of handsome white guy we’re usually asked to root for in movies. He does nothing to earn this. Kinglsey at least tries to find truth within the rote dialog. His distant stare and slowed mannerisms imply the fruits of a life of wealth-driven loneliness and egotism. In one exchange, Old Damien attempts to win his estranged daughter back by offering her a check. Kingsley’s response when she refuses, equal parts kneejerk embarrassment and disgust, finds a new layer of humanity in a well-worn cliché. None of these mannerisms made it through the machine to the Reynolds model.
What drew me to this film amid a summer of flashier, more appealing faire was the presence of director Tarsem Singh. Singh’s 2008 art film The Fall briefly threatened to join Memento, Pi, Primer, and their ilk as a favorite inspiration for film school freshmen. The draw was the lush, world-spanning fantasy that employed no CGI, utilizing only analog effects and optical illusions to create its expansive mythical world. I should note that I didn’t like The Fall—its story was almost nonexistent and, as such, it felt less like an attempt at purer filmmaking and more like a plea for the audience to judge a book by its cover—but of all the movies I don’t like, it’s probably the one I return to the most. Singh’s photography was gorgeous. I constantly marvel at how he achieved the shots he did. As a technician, cinematographer, and even a magician, I think he would have gone far. It’s one of those movies I think I might love if I saw half of it at a bar with the sound off. There’s something distinctive and thrilling there, even if it’s incomplete.
The Fall was a daring movie that was at times unwatchable, like bad cuisine. Self/Less is a boring one that is all too easy going down, like fast food. There were, admittedly, a few moments when I felt genuinely thrilled. Damien, who must take medication while his body adjusts to his new host, Googles “shedding medication” and his frustration at the excess of unhelpful results here is relatable. There is also a scene that is genuinely suspenseful in a way I might call Hitchcockian. (You’re welcome filmmakers) Damien and Madeline (Natalie Martinez), the woman in whose story Damien has become hopelessly intertwined, take a brief rest at the home of Damien’s old friend Martin (Victor Garber). While they take a deep breath, Madeline’s daughter Anna (Jaynee Lynn-Kinchen) explores. As the music builds ominously, the girl turns sharper and sharper corners through the labyrinthine mansion, and the camera cuts back to the oblivious adults far away, I could feel myself slowly inching to the edge of my seat.
As the Master of Suspense once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
By that standard this scene is wholly successful. However people who have seen the crop duster scene in North by Northwest or the shower scene in Psycho might observe that Hitchcock rarely disappointed with the bang either. And they might also feel entitled to a little disappointment if there turned out to be no bang at all. That’s really the problem with this entire film. It combines a lot of decent techniques and good ideas to no end whatsoever. It’s a movie billed as an adult alternative to Minions, but it doesn’t have believable grown-up characters. It’s a movie that espouses liberal ideas about wealth and the prejudice of isolation, but it cannot conjure a believable non-white male character to save its life. It’s a movie that gives us one of the greatest Shakespearean actors living, then replaces him with the Green Lantern and says, “Eh, basically the same thing.”
Photos Courtesy of: Focus Features