Gemma Arterton and Ryan Reynolds star in THE VOICES.

The Voices

United States/Germany. Directed by Marjane Satrapi, 2014. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver. 103 minutes.

Last week, in my review of Self/less, I wrote that Ryan Reynolds “will never be anybody’s idea of a great actor.” After seeing him in the black comedy The Voices, the latest film from multi-hyphenate Marjane Satrapi (she wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Persepolis, then co-wrote and co-directed its animated adaptation before moving on to live-action filmmaking with Chicken with Plums), I won’t entirely walk back that assessment of his talent but I am willing to accept that he might be a better actor than I realized. (It’s possible my completely justified utter fucking loathing of Van Wilder blinded me.)

Reynolds stars as Jerry, a worker at a bathroom-fixtures factory in a small town so relentlessly pastel-colored it makes the town from Edward Scissorhands look like a set from The Begotten. I mean, he even wears a pink jumpsuit on the job. Jerry has a history of mental illness, part of which manifests itself as hallucinations of his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers talking to him (Reynolds supplying both voices as well, natch). He develops a crush on Fiona (Gemma Arterton), an English expat temp who works in accounting. A series of mishaps ends with Fiona dead by his hand, possibly an accident, possibly not; he’s not really sure. So he cuts off her head and sticks it in her fridge, as one does, and it begins to talk as well. Jerry wonders if he can put himself back on the path of goodness; Bosco, Whiskers, and Fiona all have opinions on that, while Fiona’s co-worker Lisa (Anna Kendrick) and Jerry’s court-appointed psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver) complicate matters further.

Satrapi and screenwriter Michael R. Perry dish out a huge plate of food with this project: it wants to be insightful, it wants to be philosophical, it wants to make some social commentary, and it wants to be funny a specifically tasteless way. I can’t shake the sense that, metaphorically speaking, Satrapi and Perry’s eyes might have been larger than their stomachs. There are certainly bits that don’t seem as thought-through as they should have been, the overall structure’s a bit loose, and let’s be honest, “intelligent, evil, scheming cats versus good-hearted if essentially dumb dogs” has been played out for years.

I can forgive a lot of this because it’s just so damn hilarious, and Reynolds’s performance is key to that. While there are comedic dimensions to Arterton’s performance (especially once she’s a severed head in a fridge) and also Kendrick’s, Reynolds is essentially the comic lynchpin of the film. The pets get a lot of the attention–understandable, because talking animals always do. Plus, when you’ve got Reynolds giving Bosco a dopey Goliath-from-Davey and Goliath drawl (great for lines like “You’re a good man, Jerry. No one’s going to rape you”) and Whiskers the best terrible-but-brilliant fake Scots accent since Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer, it’s hard for them not to steal the scenes.

But they’re a sideshow, not the main event. Jerry is the main event, and the wide-eyed, upbeat naïf with a dark side he can barely acknowledge exists is so completely removed from anything I ever thought I would ever see him do in anything ever that I want to call his performance “unrecognizable.” It’s not, of course, but there were points in which I forgot I was watching Ryan Reynolds, actor. I rarely get that feeling, even when I’m watching actors I legitimately think are great.

Which isn’t to say he’s the only think worth watching in the film. Arterton and Weaver also put in great turns, as does Ella Smith as another member of the accounting department. Aesthetically, the film is a treat, from its opening song about how great the town is to the lovingly retro production design and Satrapi’s impressive camera skills.

But this is, above all, a Reynolds vehicle, and he’s what makes it worth watching during its less-strong moments, such as when it deals with Kendrick (who’s not bad, just kinda miscast), and–I know I sound like a broken record here, I can’t help it–the cat/dog stuff. If dark comedies are your thing, you owe it to yourself to make a bee-line to this one.

THE VOICES poster.

Ryan Reynolds stars in SELF/LESS.

Self/less

United States. Directed by Tarsem Singh, 2015. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber. 117 minutes.

Self/less stars Ben Kingsley as Damien Hale, a dying New York real estate mogul, who makes a Faustian deal with creepy Randian scientist Albright (Matthew Goode). Albright shares a dream with Steve Martin’s character in The Man with Two Brains, who foresaw “a day when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people.” To this end, the scientist arranges to kill Hale’s diseased body but transplant his consciousness into the younger, sexier, more athletic, and less cancer-ridden body of Ryan Reynolds.

Albright assures his client than Hale 2.0 was grown in a lab–which, of course, means that it wasn’t. The new Hale realizes this when he starts having visions of being  War II vet with a young wife and sick daughter. On the plus side, it turns out he has access to his body’s former occupant’s élite military training, which will aid him in his quest to find out what the hell is going on, and, not incidentally, tear Albright and his organization a new asshole.

The bad news about Self/less is that it isn’t as thoughtful as I hoped it would be. The good news is that’s really not a problem, as the film has its own particular charms–and anyway, I already have a recent, intelligent “body-swapping to help a disadvantaged daughter” movie under my belt; that would be Advantageous.

Director Tarsem Singh (The CellThe Fall, and of course the music video for “Losing My Religion”) envisions the screenplay, by Spanish writers David and Àlex Pastor as a bit of a take on The Bourne Identity (hunky guy with a vague identity uses fighting skills he doesn’t quite know about to take down a shadowy agency who won’t leave him alone), with a bit of The Guest thrown in for good measure when Hale 2.0 tracks down the family of his former body. None of this is particularly original, admittedly, and the film’s plot development settles into a rote familiarity.

This didn’t surprise me. Singh doesn’t really do substance. This is, after all, the guy who asked audiences to accept Jennifer Lopez as a brilliant child psychologist with a minor in virtual reality mind-melds. What Singh does do is style, and he does style very well. Self/less is a gorgeous film, brilliantly designed and expertly staged action sequences. The car chases, in particular, are things of beauty. I do sincerely hope that the recent trend in coherent film action continues and overtakes the “if I shake the camera hard enough no one will notice that I never bothered to learn my craft” methods practiced by Michael Bay’s acolytes.

It helps that the filmmakers have assembled a strong cast well suited for the material. Kingsley gets Damien 1.0’s smug cockiness just right, even if he does struggle with an overwrought Brooklyn accent. Reynolds will never be anybody’s idea of a great actor, but he does provide a continuity of character with Kingsley, and every so often he shows hints of range one wouldn’t ordinarily expect. Goode understands he’s playing a Bond villain and adjusts his performance accordingly. The emotional heart of the film comes in two supporting performances: the great Victor Garber (Alias) as Hale 1.0’s longtime business partner and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as Hale’s estranged environmentalist daughter.

Self/less is action movie comfort food. True, it lacks real narrative ambition and doesn’t follow up on its more intriguing science-fiction premises, jettisoning them in favor of more overt and predictable emotional manipulation. But sometimes a taste of the familiar is exactly what you need.

SELF/LESS poster.