Friday, July 10, 2015

Self/Less

Review by Pamela Zoslov


A lifetime spent treasure-hunting in thrift stores has taught me that just because something is used doesn't mean it's worthless. I'd like to say this principle applies to Self/Less, the slashmark-titled thriller starring Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds as two men who inhabit the same body, but alack, it does not. The new film, directed by Tarsem Singh and written by Alex and David Pastor, fail to significantly freshen this old premise, used in a TwilightZone episode and numerous feature films.



Oh, the film begins promisingly enough, with the venerable Ben Kingsley, as Damian, a very wealthy businessman who “built an empire,” lunching at a fine restaurant with his associate, Martin (Victor Garber). Damian has incurable cancer, and only six months to live. Damien asks Martin if he's heard of something called “shedding,” a process by which a person can leave behind an ailing body and have his consciousness transferred to a brand-new one, specially created in the labs of an outfit called Phoenix Biogenic.


As it happens, Damian has already contracted with Albright (Matthew Goode), the handsome, bespectacled genius behind this futuristic body-providing laboratory, to trade in his cancer-ridden corpse for a young, fresh model. Before he departs his life as Damian, the old man tries to mend fences with his daughter, Claire (Michelle Dockery), who heads a nonprofit grassroots organization. Like all empire-building titans in movies, Damian "wasn't there" for his daughter in her childhood, and they don't get along now. He scoffs at her public-interest work (“Just a bunch of children throwing a tantrum,”) and offers her a large financial contribution. She accuses him of using his checkbook to buy love.


Having no good reason to stick around, Damian fakes his death, at a carefully planned lunch with Garber, and is whisked away to the Phoenix lab, where he is transplanted into a body that looks like Ryan Reynolds. Albright gives new Damian a bottle of red capsules, a drug he must take to fight “rejection” of the new body. Damian, in his young, fit body, is given an apartment in New Orleans and the freedom to do anything he likes, so he spends his time playing basketball, bedding numerous young women, and clubbing with his newfound friend, Anton (Derek Luke).


But, all is not as it seems in this universe. Damian-in-Reynolds' body is plagued by flashbacks, joyful scenes of a family not his own. (It's a little like the old Woody Allen routine where he's Down South among some Klansmen, and his whole life passes before his eyes — swimming at the swimming hole, frying up a mess o' catfish, getting a piece of gingham for Emmy Lou — suddenly he realizes it's not his life.)


It turns out — not a spoiler — that Damian's “new” body is really used; it belonged to a young man who sold it to raise money for his wife and sickly daughter. The pills are meant to quash old memories, all part of the nefarious plans of the Phoenix organization. Once Damian gets wise, his life is in danger, and there follows episodes of gunplay, car chases, fisticuffs and arson. It seems Damian now has amazing fighting skills, part of the “body memory” of his new vessel, whose former occupant was Martin, a military veteran.


The moment Ben Kingsley departs, his presence is missed, even the "American" accent that wobbled weirdly from Brooklyn to, I don't know, Glasgow? Reynolds, as the repackaged Damian, makes no attempt to channel Kingsley's mannerisms or personality, nor does the “young Damian” character make use of old Damian's wisdom and experience.. Reynolds has always seemed to me the blandest of actors, suitable only where his dullness can do no harm (as the lawyer in WOMAN IN GOLD, for example.) Damian also seems to have received a conscience from his new body; he is moved by the plight of Martin's family, and goes into heartland America to track down his wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and daughter, Anna (disarmingly cute Jayne-Lee Kinchen).


As the story proceeds, people turn up in new bodies, while others are revealed to have hidden motives. A couple of plot points were either mumbled or left on the cutting-room floor (or its digital equivalent), though it doesn't much matter. Brendan Galvin's cinematography has a washed-out look that imparts an austere, clinical look that is standard for sci-fi but also tiresome. The only time things come alive is during a brief New Orleans montage, punctuated by lively, percussive street musicians and rhythmic editing by Robert Duffy to illustrate young Damian's new, active lifestyle. If only the rest of the movie had the excitement, and vivid sense of place, of that sequence! 2 out of 4 stars.


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