Self/Less starts with Ben Kingsley as a New York real estate magnate filled with regrets as he’s dying of cancer. It ends with Ryan Reynolds playing a rattled everyman puzzling over an existential mystery rapidly devolving into a chase-based thriller. They’re playing the same person. The connection between these two performances and the situations in which they find themselves hinge on a sci-fi hook. The movie gets some good heady tremors out of its body-swapping, mind-hopping’s occasionally fascinating disjunction. The two halves don’t quite make a whole, both within and outside the world of the film, which makes for a movie as interesting as it is flawed.
Kingsley’s performance is mannered, twitchy, moving deliberately and carefully through business dealings with an old partner (Victor Garber) and thwarted attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Michelle Dockery). All the while he’s struggling through choked coughing, a symptom, we’re to understand, of the terminal cancer eating away inside him. A suave bespectacled black market scientist (Matthew Goode) offers him a way out. Why not fake his death, get inside a whirling modified extra-magnetized CAT scan contraption, and transmit his mind into a younger body, held in stasis just waiting for a consciousness? It seems too good to be true, but worth a try. He wakes up as Ryan Reynolds, losing in the process the personality we saw before.
Here’s the central disjunction at work. Reynolds’ performance doesn’t match up with Kingsley’s. In a body swap scenario, shouldn’t we be able to peer into one actor’s face and see the other’s character? That’s not the case here, but Reynolds is doing somewhat interesting work, albeit of a different sort. He’s never looked more like a freshly birthed calf, stumbling with a dumbfounded look on his face as he emerges an old man in an unfamiliar younger body. At first he’s happy to be without the burden of his old life, suddenly healthy and vital again with unlimited resources offered by having a fortune carefully squirreled away for his new identity. But of course a problem quickly arises. He has seizures, hallucinations, and is prescribed pills to take until the side effects go away. Wouldn’t want his transplant to fail, after all. This isn’t a Freaky Friday or Face/Off switcheroo. There’s no going back.
This is of a piece with director Tarsem Singh’s usual interest in people inhabiting others’ lives and stories, through magic (Mirror Mirror), myth (Immortals), imagination (The Fall), or technobabble (The Cell). It’s also full of echoes of John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Seconds, with which it shares a central premise, if not its existential dread. But Self/Less is also Tarsem’s least visually interesting film, putting aside his usual go-for-baroque design for workmanlike thriller framing and mechanics. You can see flashes of his visual brilliance in the old man’s gold-plated apartment, and in the eerie plastic-draped makeshift medical center at which the operation takes place. But otherwise the screenplay by brothers Alex and David Pastor offers few opportunities for fantastical imagery beyond hallucinations that warp and distort, turning the picture into something like a wobbling bowl of gelatin filled with flash-frames.
There are interesting ideas here about the nature of identity, but also income inequality, especially as we see Kingsley’s extravagant lifestyle and learn the reason Reynolds had a body ready to be hijacked by a new man. Things aren’t as antiseptic as the mysterious underground doctor led them to believe. (What a shock.) But the film doesn’t dig into these headier ideas, content to let Reynolds adopt a vaguely pained expression as he’s forced to run, jump, punch, and shoot his way to a selfless conclusion. He picks up some sidekicks, a woman (Natalie Martinez) and her adorable daughter (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), who operate as an externalized source for confusion and emotion he’s not allowed to express, and in the process become people much easier to root for.
I found myself trying to think around the blankness in the middle of what is otherwise a good idea. I kept looking to see flashes of Kingsley’s performance in Reynolds, but alas, I could not. A pivotal climactic scene requires an understanding of whether or not the old man’s mind is still operating, and, reader, I still didn’t know even after he said the answer out loud. This movie is a good example of an intriguing concept that never quite finds its footing. Tarsem directs smoothly and competently as the plot’s gears turn. But the whole thing comes up empty. I was interested, but never invested, as the distancing hollowness at its center grew.