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April 27, 2007 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | April 27, 2007 |

I’m looking down at the very last note scrawled on the pad I carry in my hip pocket when I go see movies to review: The note says “WTF.” It might as well have been written in the blood that freely flowed from my eyes instead of the trusty Uniball I briefly contemplated shoving forcefully into my nose until it pierced the soft gray matter of my frontal lobe and mercifully ended my existence. Sure, I don’t exactly want to die without seeing 30, or riding Space Mountain, or meeting Brett Ratner so I can punch him in the solar plexus, but OK, fine, I would have maimed myself to get out of seeing the rest of Next, the latest in a long line of woefully dreadful films that are making me seriously reevaluate the respect I held for Nicolas Cage after being moved to young tears by Leaving Las Vegas. It’s not just that the film itself is atrocious; that would be lamentable but unsurprising. No, it’s just what the film does, from the downright laughable dialogue to the infuriating bait-and-switch at the end, that makes it such a crime against the medium of cinema. I don’t like spoilers, but this review’s gonna be chock full of them, so those poor misguided souls in Pajibaland who would like to hold out against the eventuality that they stumble into 20/20 Video one night in a drunken stupor and unthinkingly pluck Next from the shelves — well, you can all shuffle on. I haven’t been this ready and willing to unleash on anything in a long time, and that means discussing the movie’s shortcomings in sad detail. Because, oh, did this movie screw me over. I want my money back. I want my time back. I want to know how Cage gets his hair to look like that.

After a murky opening title sequence meant to recall the kind of thrillers Next can never be, the action shifts to Cris Johnson (Cage), who performs a shticky magic act in a small club in Las Vegas. We know we’re in Vegas because, in addition to the aerial shots of the Strip and signs that say “Las Vegas,” director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day [uh-oh], XXX: State of the Union [Lord save me]) pairs the stock footage with the remixed version of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” that’s been used in every single movie and TV show about Las Vegas in the last five years. Cris — seriously, no H, I checked — performs under the stage name of Frank Cadillac and lets the viewer in on his life and abilities by way of a thoroughly uninspired voiceover that, sure enough, drops out and only reappears in the film’s final seconds. Narration done right can be a wonderful way to enhance the story and give it depth and character, as if the narration itself becomes a player in the story. Off the top of my head, High Fidelity and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are among the gold standard of recent films with narrators. Next doesn’t rise to anywhere near that level: The screenplay from Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Paul Bernbaum has Cris narrate just for the hell of it, as if they figure, well, we’re making a B-level thriller, might as well bust out the classics.

Cris is no ordinary magician, either: He can see two minutes into the future, but only his future, a power that allows him to bring in a nice ancillary income from blackjack winnings. His skill at the table draws the attention of the security team, though, as well as Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore), an FBI agent who’s there with her partner, Generic Black Sidekick, checking out Cris’s magic show. Cris manages to elude the casino guards after getting involved in a minor fracas, and his ability to see the future both guarantees his safety and makes things profoundly uninteresting for the viewer. No guard, no obstacle, no bullet can stop Cris, which is one of the problems Tamahori eventually runs into the ground: For instance, Cris will get caught or hurt or something, only for the camera to pan and reveal Cris standing there watching one of his possible futures play out before him, at which point he alters his course of action and avoids trouble. At one point Cris gets shot, but he was never in any danger, and it’s thus no surprise when the camera reveals Cris is fine, having seen his future and decided to change his present. There is no suspense. Ever. Never ever. At all.

Anyway, Callie is after Cris because the Russians, in a plot twist straight out of 20 years ago, have smuggled a nuke into the L.A. area and Callie thinks Cris can help find it. She believes this because she studies him and comes to the conclusion that he can see up to 120 seconds into his future, despite having no background or training that would make her open to such fantastical abilities; she just Mulders up and goes with it. She wants Cris to help the Feds find the nuke with his magical powers, and she says as much to Cris before he blinks and she disappears: It only happened in the possible future where Cris allowed her to track him to his apartment, not in reality. So Cris, armed with knowledge from a conversation that will never actually happen, runs.

Oh yeah, he lives with an old man named Irv, played by Peter Falk. I have no idea why.

Man, I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Biel yet. Biel is Liz, a woman Cris saw in a vision of a diner, only the vision wasn’t two minutes into his own future, but days ahead. He went to the diner daily until she showed up, not knowing why she was special but knowing that, for some reason, he could see farther into her future than he ever could his own. Sounds cool, right? Makes you almost wonder why they’re connected. But it’s never revealed. Stop hoping. Anyway, Cris finally meets Liz at the diner and uses his ability to see all possible outcomes of their meeting to find the pick-up line that actually works — the implications of that alone are staggering — and then hitches a ride with her to Arizona, where Liz teaches a couple times a week on an Indian reservation. (Yeah.) They hook up faster than kids on spring break in Cabo. Aww. She finally responds to the pestering question he’s been asking her by saying yes, she believes in destiny. Those crazy kids.

It’s not like Biel’s incapable of dramatic acting; she was surprisingly endearing in The Illusionist, which just goes to show how important it is that an actor have a decent script. She does nothing in Next but look frightened or alluring on cue, pouting her lips and/or parading around in a towel right after a shower. Tamahori didn’t need Biel, just a warm female body. Cage isn’t mugging for the camera quite as much as he was in Ghost Rider, though that’s damning him with faint damning: He’s still awkward and creepy throughout, and never once generates any kind of believable chemistry with Biel. (Plus, I swear he’s wearing eyeliner.)

Yada yada yada, the Feds kidnap Cris and use his powers to see into the future. The Russians attempt to capture Cris, too, and in fact try repeatedly to kill him, but not because they know what he can do or because they have their own rival psychic who knows that Cris can put the kibosh on their plans (though that would have been cool). They just know that the FBI is after him, so they want him, too. That’s just lazy. And after much forced cooperation and gunplay and uses of his ability to see every possible future to dodge bullets and IEDs, Cris and Callie finally rescue Liz, who’s been kidnapped by the Russians (don’t ask), and dispatch the bad guys. All seems to be well until Callie reminds Cris that they still have to, you know, find the bomb. So Cris does his little voodoo and realizes he made a mistake. There’s legitimate panic in his voice, and the screenplay finally achieves a note of tension: How could he have screwed up? What does it mean if he really has? What are the consequences of altering reality? (Other than Cris’s circular warning that “when you look at the future, it changes, because you looked at it.”) But then the bomb goes off, and all hell breaks loose, and a piece of computer-generated debris flies up and blacks out the camera like what always happens in every dumbed-down effects-driven film since Independence Day. At this point, I expected the action to back up a couple minutes like it had countless times already so that Cris put right what once went wrong and hope that next time would be the leap home. But Tamahori put the whammy on me: The action skips all the way back to Cris and Liz in bed in Arizona, meaning the last 30 to 40 minutes of the film never happened. All the chases, the pursuits, the plot developments, the action, the deaths, the losses, the victories — it was all in Cris’s head. He decides to help the Feds anyway, on the condition that Liz is left out of it, and he and Callie drive off into the sunset, to the mournful warblings of Cage’s monotone narration. Roll credits.

“But, Dan, you prickly little jerk, you. Tamahori and the team of screenwriters are probably trying to make a point about destiny and how the future is unwritten, and that’s why they basically cheated you out of an ending and instead made half a film and half a daydream. Why are you so upset? And are you single?” Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. If Tamahori and the trio of writers had really had the courage of their convictions, they would have followed through on Cris’s making a mistake, whether it means Liz dies or L.A. gets nuked or every puppy suddenly died. There’s no drama without sacrifice and growth, and while Next could have been a brainy thriller that dealt with the allure of power and wealth and how Cris’s powers could be used for ill-gotten gains, it’s instead nothing more than a copout, a cheap trick meant to convey meaning where there is none at all to be found. In fact, Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Golden Man,” on which Next is tenuously based at best, deals with darker issues like the conflict between races and species and how the ability to see the future can be a deadly thing indeed. But Tamahori isn’t nearly brave or talented enough to make that film. Next is a sprawling, effects-laden heap of a movie, a pure waste of film and time that isn’t really worth the time it took me to write this. So consider me your time traveler: I’ve been to the future and watched this movie, and the outcome isn’t good. Now use that knowledge to make your own lives a little better.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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