“Self/less,” if you couldn’t tell from the preposterous title, is a deeply silly movie that takes itself very, very seriously.
The premise is interesting enough: A dying man (Ben Kingsley) undergoes a procedure to save his mind by ditching his failing body for a shiny new model (Ryan Reynolds, you could do worse). But, the lofty ambitions, trite messages, half-hearted allegories and over-the-top caricatures make director Tarsem Singh’s (“The Cell,” “The Fall”) latest a misguidedly campy experience.
Here, the dying man, Damian (Kingsley), is possibly the worst person in the world. In the opening scene, he destroys a young competitor who is aiming to encroach on his real estate empire.
Damian, you see, is extremely wealthy and powerful. He’s “the man who built New York from the ground up” and he can ruin another’s life before lunch, almost for sport.
He’s also only got six months to live. His cancer has metastasized and he has yet to come to terms with it. He hasn’t even told his daughter (“Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery in a tiny role), although we’ll soon find out that they’re estranged.
This is a selfish, egotistical man. The type who walks all the way over to the driver’s side of his town car to knock on the window so the driver will get out and open the passenger seat door for him. The type who is so consumed with his own specialness that he will pay $250 million for a new “vessel” for his brilliant mind. The type who also craves immortality so wholly that he doesn’t ask too many questions about the origins of the new body.
The doctor behind the controversial “shedding” procedure, Albright (a mustache-twirling Matthew Goode), snivels that the bodies are grown in labs. Right.
Anyway, in his new, youthful body Damian goes off to live in New Orleans to play pickup basketball, party and get girls — a lot of them. (There’s an entire montage of young beauties falling on his bed). Because even with 86 years of wisdom, when you’re suddenly given the body of Ryan Reynolds, priorities shift. So much for using that great mind!
And this is the main problem. In Kingsley’s Damian was a sour, ruthless, brilliant man who’d constructed his own empire in a lifetime. Reynolds’ Damian is a little dopey, deeply curious and empathetic from the start, lacking even an ounce of that bitter, eagle-eyed intensity and drive.
It’s as though they’re just two completely different men, which makes for a far less interesting film, especially when Damian begins to suspect that perhaps his new body didn’t come out of a lab.
Young Damian starts having visions of a life on a farm with a woman and child. Albright swears they’re hallucinations, but Damian is compelled to investigate — perhaps his most out of character move. Why would he start caring about others now?
That curiosity gets him entangled in the lives of the women in his visions, Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and young daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), who he now feels obligated to protect from a murderous Albright and his thugs.
The rest of the movie is a cat and mouse chase. Despite some gorgeous, studied visuals, it all feels rather standard with increasingly diminished returns.
“Self/less” imagines itself as a high-concept redemption tale. But in execution, it’s more concerned with the action than the big questions or dark implications, which stay at surface level in the script from Alex Pastor and David Pastor.
Damian makes a few sacrifices along the way (although they’re also primarily selfish acts) and finds a certain peace amid the chaos, but we never cared. The movie just assumes the audience will develop some empathy for him along the way, never wondering why we’d ever root for this awful billionaire— even in Ryan Reynolds’ body.