Poor Ryan Reynolds. He’s handsome, funny, and famous. But the guy is pretty terrible at picking projects. Sure, on paper the sci-fi thriller “Self/Less” looked promising. Its premise seemed unique and haunting. And it would be helmed by the visionary director Tarsem Singh, who won this critic’s heart with his fantasy films “The Fall” and “Mirror Mirror” (also rans: “The Cell,” “Immortals”). But all this promise adds up to bunk thanks to a plot that wastes the premise, and an approach that rejects Singh’s signature style.
“Self/Less” begins with Ben Kingsley as Damian, a ruthless businessman with a New York accent out of Al Pacino’s hammiest performances (think “The Devil’s Advocate”). Even with all his wealth and power, Damian can’t prevent his body from the inevitable decay of mortality. But for just $250 million, he can swap to a new body. And so he does, and Reynolds takes over, making no attempt to mimic Kingsley’s performance one iota. Aside from presenting Damian as a total jerk, this choice further disconnects us from our protagonist, making him newly unfamiliar as the second act begins.
After some basketball games, one-night stands, and enjoyment of New Orleans’ jazz scene, Damian starts to wonder why he has visions of a sick little girl, and a beautiful Latina woman. This spurs his quest to uncover the secrets of who this body was before. Things go very “Bourne Identity” with Damian using the new body’s muscle memory to slay assassins with ease while trying to rescue a family for whom he feels responsible. To save them, he’ll need to take down a shadow company with oodles of money and unknown influence. This should be exciting, and yet…
Aside from being disconnected from “Self/Less”s unlikeable anti-hero, we also have to struggle through a first act that is laboriously drawn out to set up meaningless movie science and this sketchy company that helps the super rich live for as long as they can afford. As the plot tromps along, its holes become gaping, perplexing then infuriating. The splatter of action scenes mean nothing without emotional stakes. And as likeable as Reynolds is (a point that I realize is itself arguable), he doesn’t have that kind of crazy charisma that would swoon audiences into ignoring all the nonsense this movie mistakes for plot. Simply put: he’s no Arnold.
But even more disappointing than a script that pisses away a compelling concept, is how this looks nothing like a Singh movie. Repeated viewings of “The Fall” mean I’ve come to expect breathtaking visuals, rich symbolism and mind-bending compositions from this filmmaker. But for much of its grey and grim 116 minutes, “Self/Less” looks like any number of bland low-budget thrillers. The only place I could sense Singh’s enthusiasm was in the cinematography capturing Damian’s ritzy homes. It’s a movie with could-be trippy hallucinations, but interior design porn–as strange as it seems–is the most vivid thing Singh brings to the stilted “Self/Less.”
This movie is boring. But moreover, it’s deeply disappointing that it is boring! There are juicy themes of class warfare and technology making man inhuman. But neither is explored in a worthwhile way as they were in “Snowpiercer” and “Ex Machina.” The linking Kinglsey of Reynolds’s performances could have gone for “Face Off” styled camp. But instead, the pair act as if they are in completely different movies, neither of which is fun. And Singh, who has previously shown a true talent for weaving together light and dark elements, favors instead a one-note thread of earnestness that makes the whole affair a blur of blue and blah.
“Self/Less” opens July 10th.
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