Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Self/Less: A Review


Somewhere in Self/Less, there is a great movie yearning to break free.  Self/Less is not a bad movie, but a little bit of a frustrating one.  What it has is 'potential', which is a damning word if ever there was one when it comes to movies.  Good ideas about immortality and its cost, of mad science, about lost and found opportunities get sidetracked by a rush to give us less intellect, more action. 

Billionaire real estate mogul Damien Hale (Ben Kingsley, sporting a Nuw Yowk accent slightly more believable than Leonardo DiCaprio's two stabs at a Boston accent) is dying of cancer.  His best friend/partner Martin (Victor Garber) is the only one who knows.  Not even Damien's estranged daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery) knows he is ill.  Damien decides to go for a radical treatment: shedding, where a person literally transfers his consciousness into another body.  Faking his death, Damien finds himself a new body thanks to Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), the director of a super-secret lab that has been working on this procedure.

Now going by the name Edward, Damien's new body is in the form of Ryan Reynolds.  Damien struggles to adjust to his new body, eventually finding that being a 68-year-old man with the body of a 35-year-old does have some advantages.  Temporarily staying in New Orleans, he even makes friends with Anton (Derek Luke) who shows him a few things about living life in the Big Easy.

Damien/Mark though, is still having problems with the corpse, getting odd flashes of a woman and child.  Albright tells him it's just old memories struggling to get through, but when he refers to the woman in the flashbacks as "Latina", Damien becomes alarmed.  He never mentioned the woman in the flashbacks was Latina.  Determined to find out the truth, Damien manages to elude the company and goes to St. Louis, where he quickly finds Madeline (Natalie Martinez).  She was the wife of one Mark Bidwell, who thought Mark was dead.  Quickly they discover that Mark had sold himself to Albright to get the money to finance health care for their daughter Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).  They immediately flee Anton (whom we discover works for Albright) and a race is on to discover not just what happened, but to stop Albright in his nefarious schemes to murder people for their bodies.

The medication Damien needs to stop his visions gets lost, and if he doesn't take them, soon Mark's memories will overrun Damien's and in essence, Damien will cease to exist.  We get one or two twists (some expected, some downright bizarre) until our fiery and gun-blazing conclusion.

As I said, Self/Less has some good ideas rattling in the script by David and Alex Pastor.  You have a great premise in the idea of a man becoming another man, but Self/Less doesn't really know what to do with it.  Again, Damien is a 68-year-old who now finds himself with a body of a much younger (and hotter) man, but whatever culture clashes he encounters go by the wayside.  I can't imagine that even with a stronger physical body, Damien would become THAT proficient in basketball or stumble a bit in getting into the dating scene (or in his case, a succession of one-night stands).  He might have a new body, but does shedding also give one a new personality?

Damien early on is shown to ruthlessly cut out a younger rival (Sam Page).  Therefore, this is not a nice guy.  Now, after discovering that Mark was killed to give him his new body (rather than being grown in a lab like he was told), Damien is horrified and outraged.  It doesn't strike me as believable that he would be that appalled, or that he would find Madeline so quickly, or that the company would literally burn the house down with Damien in it after Anton tells the hired guns Albright wants him taken alive.

Other parts of Self/Less were a bit more puzzling.  Bidwell is retired Army and has mad fighting skills, but Damien never questions how he, a man who has spent his life in business, can suddenly be all Mortal Kombat-like.   His discoveries of Madeline and of Mark's past are very rushed.  The predictable happy ending does it no favors either.

I would argue that the rushed nature of Self/Less is one of its key problems.  Almost everything about it seems to be going at a shockingly rapid pace to be believed.  Exactly how much time elapses between scenes is muddled. This is especially true when Damien starts investigating.  The editing is so haphazard.  Sometimes the montages work (like when Damien is learning to use his new body) sometimes it looks quite bizarre (his new basketball skills that come out of nowhere).

It's interesting that in terms of performances, we do get a lot of hit-and-miss.  The standout is Goode, who is now the go-to guy for creepy villains (example, Stoker).  He is calm throughout as the mad scientist, never wavering in his demeanor or going into fits of shouting.  It's his extreme calm that makes him quite effective, though I'd like to see Goode in a flat-out comedy.

Reynolds is the one who comes off a bit bad in all this.  He can do the action parts well, but sometimes his blank expression is almost comical.  When Young Damien finds the wife of the previous scientist, it looked like Reynolds wanted to cry.  I don't think that was the intention of his character.  It is more frustrating to know that Reynolds can act, but keeps getting lost either in dramas that don't give him much if anything to work with or in action films. 

It is positive to see a Hispanic character who isn't a stereotype (and who isn't asked to speak Spanish), and I think Martinez did a good job as Madeline given the material she had.  I'm also glad that her being Latina was essentially incidental, and perhaps Self/Less can show Hollywood that Hispanics are capable of a wide variety of roles.  Kincher was adorable as little Anna, and I will grant that her scenes with Reynolds as they bond were appealing.

Sadly, I feel worse for Dockery (whose American accent, unlike Kingsley, was at least believable).  Appearing only in the beginning and end of Self/Less, she is thoroughly wasted in the film.  Pity because it would have been interesting if she had had a larger part in the story (say, she suspected something was going on with her father and she investigated) we could have had her do something she needs to do: break out in a film now that she is no longer corseted on Downton Abbey

Self/Less has good ideas that if pursued would have made for a more interesting film.  It is only when it turned into an action picture, full of shootings and burning men, that it forget what a great premise it had.  For my-self, the film is less than the sum of its body parts.       


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