In Tarsem Singh’s Self/less, which was already off to bad start with both creative punctuation and capitalization in the title, a dying New Yawk real estate tycoon played by Ben Kingsley transfers his consciousness (but not his accent, strangely) into a designer vessel played by handsome Ryan Reynolds, our most prolific living body-swap actor. The process is called “shedding,” secretly sold by a mysterious company and overseen by a handsome, unctuous Englishman (Matthew Goode), which is never a good sign. If you ever submit for an experimental procedure and the doctor turns out to be English, just get out of there, he probably has evil plans.
Self/less is either an intriguing premise horribly executed, or screenwriters Alex and David Pastor accidentally came up with a too-interesting hook for their B-grade action movie. The title makes me lean more towards the latter, but we’re not here to play bad movie pathologist.
The body swap goes smoothly, but just when Kingsley (as Reynolds) is starting to enjoy his hot new bod, bedding babes and b-balling with black dudes like a man a half his age (think montages), wouldn’t you know it, there are complications. Turns out, the Reynolds vessel wasn’t actually grown in a lab as advertised. HE WAS A REAL MAN!
Now, so far, this was actually an intriguing premise. Ben Kingsley wanted to buy a new body, but finds out that he’s gotten a used one instead, from a handsome-but-poor Marine who committed a kind of suicide to pay for his adorable Latina daughter’s proverbial operation (the movie goes into great detail about the adorableness, but is pretty vague about the operation). Reynolds had youth, a loving wife, and an adorable daughter, but no money, and he was willing to give it all up (he was self/less, say). Kingsley had one friend, a proverbial daughter who hates him, and money, yet he was willing to risk it all to keep living. (Conclusion? Being rich is awesome). It’s almost like they’re perfect foils or something. And now they have to share the same body! (*slide whistle*)
The compelling question posed here is, what do you do when you find out your second chance at life comes at the expense of someone else’s? Does Kingsley enjoy his new abs and keep partying, or does he have a change of heart and try to do right by the inspiring stranger whose body he stole? (Alt. title, Marine Todd: Beyond The Grave).
Both options are somewhat intriguing, but Self/less goes for option C: mash all the buttons together. Kingsley/Reynolds (better title, FYI) just sort of goes berzerk and starts shooting everyone for some reason, relying on his half-remembered military killing skills. Hey, that worked in Bourne, right?
Instead of answering the somewhat intriguing question of “what now,” the script just gets angry about what’s already happened. What could’ve been a new(ish) twist on John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (a 1966 film in which a mysterious company helps an old man fake his death and turn him young, giving him a “second” chance at life) turns into C-grade shoot-em-up.
Q: What is the meaning of life?
A: KILL THE ENGLISH GUY! JUST LOOK AT HIM, ACTING ALL SMUG AND ENGLISH!
Self/less asks some big questions only to give the lamest of answers. The vengeance plot is just strange. You could understand Reynolds’ family being irrationally pissed at the body swap doctor, but its Kingsley‘s driving the story. His homicidal rage is a tough sell. He was trying to buy a new body, wasn’t he? And Ryan Reynolds’ character was trying to sell his? So the Kingsley character is just angry about… how it was procured? This may be the first revenge movie driven entirely by a misleading product description. YOU SAID THESE EGGS WERE FREE RANGE, YOU SON OF A BITCH!
Also, if you can’t think of a better reason for an older man to be unfulfilled than “he was a workaholic,” or a better reason for his children to be mad at him than “he worked too hard,” just stop writing. A screenwriter friend of mine has a theory that because writers usually work from home, they flatter themselves by writing scripts where hanging around the house is the pinnacle of fatherhood, and being off at an office is the ultimate sin. (You had to commute? How could you!) Ben Kingsley’s character eventually has to atone for that sin before everyone stops shooting, which just one of many tedious elements by the end.
Whatever the reason, from now on, whenever some rich father shows up to his estranged daughter’s non-profit to make amends in the first act, and she immediately screams something like “You think you can just waltz in here and buy me off like you buy everyone else?!,” I’m leaving. Nothing good ever comes after that.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.