Imagine Donald Trump wanted to reboot his disastrous presidential campaign announcement month to start over as a younger man with real hair. In Tarsem Singh's Self/less, Trump could hire the medical geniuses of Phoenix Biogenic to transfer his aging brain into a strapping hot bod for $250 million — the price of lab-grown "genetically engineered perfection," purrs founder Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode). Scarier still, Trump's $4 billion fortune could afford him 15 more chances to screw up if his new golem kept saying something racist.
Here, our monstrous real-estate mogul is Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), a tycoon so obsessed with ostentatious wealth that his Central Park penthouse has gold-plated martini shakers. Damian is dying of cancer. Like a Victorian heroine, he's continually coughing up sticky red blood. Though, in a nod to the 21st Century, instead of hacking his guts into a kerchief, he splutters onto a laptop.
Kingsley plays Damian as straight-backed and cruel as a spike. In his first scene, he destroys a 20-something's career over an insult. To score a lucrative contract, the kid told a councilman that "the old man won't be around for long." It's true — and Damian knows it — but he still wants vengeance he won't even be alive to enjoy. Unless, that is, that crackpot company Phoenix really can transplant his consciousness into a healthy human. It works, and after a fake fatal accident in front of his unsuspecting best friend Martin (Victor Garber), Damian sticks his head into a spinning metal donut and wakes up in the body of Ryan Reynolds. The first thing he does is vomit. Soothes Albright, "Death has some side effects."
Kingsley is such a good actor he practically sabotages the film. Before exiting fifteen minutes in, he infuses Damian with gravitas, empathy, intelligence, mercilessness, and ambition. Damian 2.0 is just a nice dude who can't wait to get laid. Reynolds has done body-swap movies before — he was excellent channeling Jason Bateman in the under-appreciated comedy The Change-Up — but Singh seems to have forgotten to tell him what to mimic. (I wouldn't be shocked to hear they shot Reynolds's scenes first.)
Instead, Self/less leans on the natural empathy of Reynolds, who might have the most visible conscience in cinema. When you look at him, you see an insecure kid worried about being nice. He's also well cast to play an old man embedded in a hunk. In most of his films, Reynolds wears his own body as a joke. He's built like a beast who's regularly required to wear superhero tights, but from the neck up, he's an ordinary guy with a thin-lipped, almost nervous, smile at his own bowling-ball musculature. The contrast almost always works to his advantage — if you see Self/less and walk away declaring Reynolds can't act, watch him play a sweetheart serial killer in this year's The Voices — and could have here if Singh had given him anything more to do than run and jump. Reynolds doesn't even copy Kingsley's ramrod posture. Instead, he gets a few scenes of puppyish physical exaltation, quietly showing us how happy Damian is to play sports and jog and screw, and a few decent gags as his inner geezer tries to act cool. In the back of a cab snogging a hottie, he pretends to be hip to a tacky pop song, and the girl immediately calls him out with a giggle.
If this were the movie, it'd be a pointless but pleasant diversion. We're steeling ourselves for awkward nonsense — say, hot Damian accidentally making his own daughter (Michelle Dockery), an estranged environmental activist, fall in lust with him. But then brothers Alex and David Pastor's script tries to get smart, and winds up getting really, really dumb. Damian realizes his new life came at a human cost, and Self/less pretends that a billionaire Scrooge who's already abandoned his own family would risk everything to save a stranger's. And, dumber still, that a ruthless, well-connected genius can think of no better revenge than grabbing a gun.
Singh's films — The Cell, The Fall — have always been more dumb than they looked. But that's because they looked brilliant. He's a raving stylist, a maverick willing to, say, end his rococo Snow White movie Mirror Mirror with a Bollywood dance number. Yet Self/less is so restrained that I wonder if somebody stole Singh's body, too. The neat plastic igloos in the Phoenix labs have the crafty low-budget-looking design of a promising first-time filmmaker, not of a visual loon who started his career wrapping Jennifer Lopez in latex and shoving her inside a screensaver.
Self/less's only flourish is an editing pace that clips ahead into the next scene before the current one is done, like Singh's impatient to get the whole thing over with. (Though there's one great montage where he turns the sounds of New Orleans into a living pulse.) It's odd to see him slum it with a generic action script, and odder still to see that this CGI whiz can pull off an excellent, tactile car chase that reminds us that speeding SUVs are clumsy, heavy, and chaotic. His film is good with physics and lousy at philosophy. As the goon body count rises in Damian's pursuit of justice, you could argue he was a better man in his lavish mansion before his social awakening. At least then, he agreed that a human life cost a quarter of a billion dollars. The stack of corpses he creates are worthless.