Seconds (1966)
Produced by Joel Productions; Directed by John Frankenheimer; Screenplay by Lewis John Carlino, adapted from a novel by David Ely; Distributed by Paramount Pictures

The Art of Self-Defense
Produced by Andrew Kortschak; Directed and written by Riley Stearns; Distributed by Bleecker Street

After Life
Produced, written, and directed by Ricky Gervais; Distributed by Netflix

America was founded on the idea of the second chance. People unhappy with their lives in Europe sailed to the New World, where they hoped they could escape oppression and failure. This gave rise to the peculiarly American idea that it is possible to overcome the weight of the past and reinvent oneself to one’s own specifications. It doesn’t always work out, but hope is a virtue that springs eternal. If your new self disappoints, you could always pick up stakes and move farther west in search of regions more hospitable to your dreams.

In Seconds, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film adaptation of David Ely’s unsparing satiric novel, the protagonist is Arthur Hamilton, a man who’s achieved what many would think of as American success. He’s a Harvard graduate who’s always played by the rules. He’s gone into banking and now in his early 50s he’s about to become the president of his institution. But things are not what they seem. He’s fallen into despair and out of love with his wife. His daughter rarely visits him. His primary wish for her is that she should encourage her husband, a medical doctor, to specialize rather than set up a general practice. Specialists make more money.

Hamilton’s devotion to material success seems prudent by the standards of his Scarsdale, New York, existence. But it’s done little for his emotional stability and has left him a thoroughly depressed and ruinously empty person. He feels he’s fallen into the trap of conforming to what he’s been trained from grade school to believe is success. He’s the perfect target for a clandestine business that reinvents such men.

Once contacted by the company, Hamilton is quickly drawn into its scheme. He undergoes a transformation by means of extensive plastic surgery and strenuous physical exercise, at the end of which he emerges as—who else?—Rock Hudson. Not only does he look entirely different, but he also has a new voice and signature. The company relocates him to a sumptuous beach house in Malibu and sets him up as a mildly successful painter named Antiochus Wilson. How, Hamilton wonders, will he convince others that he is genuine? The company provides him with paintings and diplomas from prestigious art schools. When Hamilton worries about the artifice of his supposed success, he’s assured the diplomas are genuine and that his “works” already have been exhibited.

As the psychiatrist who oversees his transformation puts it, he now has what every middle-aged American man wants: freedom. He’s alone in the world with no obligations to anyone but himself. But Hamilton has profound doubts. He comes to realize that his new life is not that different from his earlier, conventional one. He’s always been obedient to the mores to which he had been trained to subscribe from childhood. In Malibu, he slowly comes to realize, his new life is little more than a substitution of one set of prescribed values for another. While he had conformed to the staid conventions of middle-class life, he is now trapped anew in the seemingly unconventional existence of Antiochus Wilson. He’s still not his own man, but rather a collection of ersatz attitudes and gestures deemed splendidly upscale.

The film’s denouement couldn’t be bleaker. Hamilton comes to realize his life on the West Coast is fundamentally no different than what it had been in the East. He’s essentially the same man: depressed, baffled, and irresolute. Instead of becoming master of his life, he continues to submit to the destiny others have laid out for him. In essence, the film is a brutal satire of the American dream.

Hudson turned out to be the perfect Wilson. In the 1960s, few men would have declined the opportunity to be reinvented as the ruggedly handsome screen star, or so movie magazines and press agents had it. Personally, I have my doubts, given Hudson’s off-camera inclinations. Nevertheless, Frankenheimer’s choice of stage actor John Randolph and film star Hudson to play the before-and-after lives of the protagonist was inspired typecasting. Both Randolph and Hudson had been privately leading double lives. Randolph, born Emanuel Cohen in 1915, had been blacklisted in the early 1950s for his left-wing socialist beliefs. Hudson, born Roy Scherer, had his silly film name bestowed on him by his agent, Henry Willson, who briefly became his homosexual partner in the 1950s. Both actors knew intimately what it meant to live a double life.

Ely’s novel interrogates the price of success in America. In its vision, success comes to those who conform to America’s reigning materialistic values. But it does so at a steep cost: It required an erasure of personal identity, not to mention integrity.

Commercially, Seconds was a dismal failure. However, in succeeding decades it has achieved an honorable cult status. Frankenheimer, who was too hard on himself, remarked that the film is “the only picture that’s gone from failure to classic without having success.” But Seconds is a cinematic achievement of lasting significance, both for its vitriolic satire and for its style. Cinematographer James Wong Howe created a thoroughly unsettling look using deep-focus black and white images, often using a distorting fish-eye lens that weirdly misshapes the actors. In many scenes, he filmed Hudson and Randolph as if they were being wheeled through a macabre fun house, an effect achieved by putting them in the close foreground as the camera glides just behind them. To reinforce Hamilton’s helplessness, several shots show him on a commuter train to and from Manhattan. As the train moves, trees and shrubbery rush by the windows in a blur that visualizes Hamilton’s sense that his life is similarly rushing by. In the company’s medical rooms, he is wheeled on a gurney to his various surgeries, a passive piece of meat rather than a man in control of his life.

The film has other symbolic implications. Hamilton and Wilson reference America’s first Treasury Secretary Alexander, and our foolishly ambitious President Woodrow, who promised he was going to remake not only America but the entire world. The closing scenes evoke another president, John F. Kennedy. Frankenheimer, who had directed the supposedly anti-communist The Manchurian Candidate (1962), gave Seconds a thoroughly disquieting historical resonance.

The Art of Self-Defense also interrogates the possibility of personal reinvention, but it’s not nearly as convincing. Casey Davies, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a 36-year-old wimp who takes up karate out of a fear of other men.

The film is meant to be a comedy but fails this mission largely because of its misdirection and third-rate script. The performers are all reasonably competent, but that alone doesn’t rescue the project. The one bright spot is Alessandro Nivola, an American actor of Argentinian descent who plays Davies’ sensei with grim conviction. He’s a parody of Hollywood’s view of so-called toxic masculinity. He counsels Davies to take up masculine tastes, such as clashing metal music instead of soft rock. He further insists Davies trade in his dachshund for a German shepherd with a pronounced wolfish tendencies. Then there’s the wonderfully named British actress Imogen Poots, who plays a karate instructor with toxic tendencies of her own. She’s afflicted with man problems and is determined to get revenge. She’d really like to kill Sensei but settles for ferociously beating her male students bloody.

The film aims at comedy but hits the merely ridiculous. If karate mentors routinely pulverized their students, they’d soon go out of business. Then there’s the “comic” moment in which a disgruntled student shoots his trainer dead. As the man lies bleeding, an unimpressed Poots continues to calmly teach the other students. Big laugh there. As you may have divined, this is no Karate Kid.

British comedian Ricky Gervais has also taken on reinvention of a sour kind in his Netflix streaming film After Life. Gervais plays Tony Johnson, who has a strange way of grieving for his recently deceased wife. He’s become bitterly suicidal and taken to mocking those who try to help.

The only reason he’s still above ground, he tells us, is the dog he brought home to his wife two years earlier. A razor blade poised above his wrist, he only hesitates because the dog whimpered for food. Who will feed the animal, he wonders, if not himself? The line is delivered wryly, for Johnson doesn’t believe what he’s saying. You can’t help feeling that rather than bringing down his own curtain, he’d much prefer to go on striding the stage, rudely insulting people.

Johnson works for a free village paper that specializes in cute local gossip that is supposed to be cheery and endearing. Instead, Johnson uses his perch of minor import to heartlessly mock these folk for their childish desire to gain a spot of fame. He rails at their stupidity while ignoring his own. He thinks his reinvention as a suffering, death-seeking soul has ennobled him. Here the show comes a cropper. There’s practically no evidence that either Johnson or, worse, his author Gervais, are aware of how insufferably petulant they are.