Ben Kingsley stars as Damian, a wealthy businessman, on top of the world but emotionally distant from his only daughter and everyone else. Early on, we see him at one of those public meetings in a restaurant, where a younger, less experienced executive is about to get fired. While Damian remains smug in his seat, the disgraced executive storms off, his parting words a reminder that the old man won’t be around much longer. Damian gravely turns to his longtime colleague and adds, “He’s right.” Damian has cancer, though death isn’t his only option.
A slick businessman (well played by Matthew Goode) introduces Damian to the “Shedd,” a process where an old mind can be placed into a young body that was developed in a laboratory. Damian undergoes the procedure and awakens a young man, now played by Ryan Reynolds. While the 50-years younger Damian enjoys his active and unpredictable young existence, he begins to hallucinate and uncovers a major conspiracy involving the scientists who gave him his second life.
Self/Less begins well, with the intrigue of the premise and energetic filmmaking casting a spell pulling us in. But just when it should take off, it sputters.
At first, I couldn’t detect any trace of director Tarsem Singh’s previous work. Then the hallucinations came and I recognized the look and style (in brief spurts) of the genius who made The Fall, one of the best films of 2008. Unfortunately, while there are odd similarities between the two films (the importance of what is “real” and a father/daughter surrogate relationship), Self/Less has a screenplay that feels like a first draft and not enough excitement to distinguish it. There are scenes so beautifully lit and expertly set up, you wish the movie gave you more instead of settling for less.
It’s nice to see a summer movie catered to adults, aiming for a Rod Serling-esque tale with moral implications atop the sci-fi premise. But by the end, the film addresses none of its big questions or any provocative themes on human responsibility. What’s more, the pacing is all over the place, as some scenes crackle (like a montage, set to New Orleans street musicians, in which Reynolds embraces his new life), while others drag and stall the momentum.
Kingsley is second-billed but is only in the first act, then exits the film entirely. It’s too bad, as he creates a sympathetic character and the movie could have used more of him. Goode does a nice character turn but he can’t fill the void of Kingsley being gone for 80 percent of the movie.
Reynolds is miscast and doesn’t fully immerse himself. While a handsome, likable leading man, he’s too much a live wire to be playing such a glum character. He makes no effort to impersonate Ben Kingsley’s vocals or performance (which shouldn’t have been too hard, since Kingsley is playing an American). Despite Kingsley’s character being middle-aged, there’s nothing “old school” or charmingly dated about any of Reynolds’ actions or choice of words. Having two actors play the same role doesn’t come off very well.
Natalie Martinez is always a pleasure to watch and she invests real feeling into her scenes, but her role is too much of a plot device. Playing Martinez’s daughter is eight-year-old actress Jaynee-Lynn Kinchen. Her scenes with Reynolds, where he teaches her to swim, are adorable. The scenes where bad guys are firing guns around her, on the other hand, are contemptible.
This isn’t the comeback vehicle Reynolds badly needs, though it’s not a Green Lantern or The Change-up, either. Actually, Self/Less is like another R.I.P.D., in which Reynolds again seems only half-committed to a high concept fantasy with a strong co-star and good director, but done in by a weak screenplay.