They say that money can’t buy happiness in life, but for one New York City tycoon, it might be able to buy life itself. That’s the premise of director Tarsem Singh’s new film Self/less, a muddled mashup of genres that makes the disastrous assumption that the audience will be too brain/less to notice its many preposterous plot points.
(Sir) Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hale, an impossibly wealthy NYC businessman who has devoted his life to making bank instead of raising his daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery), now estranged from him and the director of a nonprofit. Damian is dying from a quickly spreading cancer, the end rapidly closing in with every blood-spattering cough. When someone slips him a mysterious business card claiming to offer a solution to his terminal dilemma, he takes the bait and is soon touring a secret lab in New Orleans with a crazy-smart (emphasis on crazy) scientist named Albright (Matthew Goode). Albright explains that he has developed a way to implant a person’s consciousness into a “host” body, thus allowing the dying person a chance to live on with a new identity and face. But this procedure is not for everyone; only the world’s brightest minds, he says, are worthy of the process called “shedding.” When Damian asks how the host bodies are created, Albright states that they are genetically grown in a lab, not unlike some plants. One can’t help but picture a Frankenstein-like Chia Pet that, in addition to a full head of hair, also grows a perfectly functioning brain, complete skeletal system, and all of the muscles and organs necessary to be considered human. Okie dokie.
Despite possessing one of those aforementioned “brightest minds in the world,” Hale agrees to the procedure with nary a speck of incredulity regarding the outlandish method of producing a host body. His cancer soon becomes more aggressive, and when the final credits of his life story are about to start rolling, the shedding commences. All it takes is about 15 seconds or so in an MRI-like machine, and Damian is now comfortably ensconced in his cool but rather unsteady new vessel (enter Ryan Reynolds as the host body). As Albright gives him the stats on his new life, one can’t help but wonder why the guy would pay all that money just to look like a 35-year-old about to enter middle age instead of someone much younger. And that’s just one of the many frustrating questions that the film never sufficiently answers.
While enjoying his new existence as a wealthy New Orleans retiree who plays basketball all day and trolls for chicks at the clubs every night, Damian is also plagued by strange hallucinations (seemingly of another person’s life), which can only be controlled by taking a daily pill. His discovery of the real cause of these hallucinations regrettably transforms this film from a potentially intriguing sci-fi thriller into a rock-‘em-sock-‘em action flick, complete with car chases, shoot-outs, and more than one death by blowtorch.
The overriding problem with Self/less is the lazy storytelling by Singh and screenwriting brothers Alex and David Pastor, who forgo character development and narrative credibility in the arrogant assumption that multiple fistfights and insane car crashes will be enough to satiate the audience. We never really find out why Damian is so jazzed about continuing life on earth, considering that he made a miserable and lonely mess of his first one despite oodles of cash to comfort him. Kingsley’s screen time is so woefully brief (he’s basically making a cameo appearance) that he isn’t given the chance to flesh out Damian beyond giving him a thick New York accent and inserting barely noticeable pauses into his speech. Not that it even matters, since Reynolds doesn’t bother to adopt Kingsley’s mannerisms or in any way attempt to remind viewers that, underneath those ripped muscles, full head of hair, and Canadian-tinged intonation, there lies a brilliant, cynical seventysomething New Yawker.
While the action scenes are fun to watch, one can’t help but feel that Self/less is like sitting through two completely different movies at the same time — and the better of the two abruptly ends with the shot of Kingsley’s body being covered by a sheet following the shedding. Unfortunately, the only thing left for viewers after that is, well… less.