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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Next (review)

Don’t Know Dick

There are lots of crimes a movie can commit — being boring, being nonsensical, being implausible, being irrelevant — but it’s the rare movie that can commit all of them in the space of 90 minutes. Enter Next, the latest atrocity to be perverted out of the literary work of genius science fiction mastermind Philip K. Dick. Don’t be fooled by the Dick connection — the screenplay, which took three writers to concoct, is based on a Dick short story, but it has little to say about the matters of identity and self-delusion with which Dick concerned himself so vitally. Next has little to say about anything, in fact, including the basic need for cohesion, believability, or simply giving the viewer bang for her multiplex buck that we should be able to expect, at a minimum, from our movies. It’s impossible to guess what anyone involved in the production of this flick anticipated moviegoers would get from it, but here it is.
I’m still so furious: I can’t remember the last time I sat through 99 percent of a movie — most of which, in this case, was completely preposterous to start with — and then, at the very end, at the moment of truth, the moment of climax, felt so cruelly abused. You have to invest a certain amount of your psychic energy in a film if it is to have any chance of working at all — you have to give yourself over, let yourself be vulnerable in the hopes that it’s all going to pay off and that your trust will be rewarded with something like a narratively satisfying outcome. This is a basic requirement for any kind of film, from the dumbest of juvenile comedies to the most sophisticated of subtitled costume dramas: there’s an expectation that the filmmakers will treat you fairly. I’m not talking about “twist” endings or “surprise” endings — those can work, and when they’re done right they make you want to rewatch the film instantly, for all sorts of reasons: to figure out how you were tricked, to gain a new, deeper understanding of the story. Twist endings don’t negate everything that’s come before — quite the contrary, they lend everything that’s come before new meaning. But how Next ends pulls the rug out from under you, jabs an unkind finger in your gut: Ha, ha, it taunts, Nelson Muntz style. It got you good, didn’t it? Except it didn’t.

Next was near a total loss to that point anyway, but the ending puts a brutal period on the disaster. It’s actually quite fascinating and rather original in its opening gambit, as Vegas stage magician Frank Cadillac, aka Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage: The Wicker Man, The Ant Bully), evades casino security in a slow-speed chase across a casino floor that highlights, brilliantly so, his particular real talent for “magic”: he can see up to two minutes into the future, and so he can alter his behavior to, say, avoid being caught by the nasty guys packing heat and fists who are looking for him. (Duck when you know a goon will be looking your way; repeat 20 times; you’re home free.)

But Next is done with cleverness after the first 10 minutes, has played its only card. Suddenly Cris is being hunted by Feds — led by a tough-as-nails agent played by Julianne Moore (Children of Men, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio), who is far too intense and is taking this far too seriously — because there’s a rogue nuke on the loose somewhere in the U.S. and she thinks Cris can stop the terrorists who have it from detonating. Why she think this is a mystery: by what stretch of the imagination could a two-minute warning of a nuclear explosion somewhere in the lower 48 constitute enough of a heads-up to stop it unless you’ve actually got guys who know which wire to cut literally blanketing the entire country, you know, all standing within a block of the next guy? It boggles the mind that this supposition is the building block of the movie’s pathetic attempt at suspense.

Wait! It’s worse. The conceit is preposterous, but Cris isn’t even willing to try: he’s willing to let probably millions of people die to keep the Feds off his back, which, in a far better written movie, could work as the motivation of a supposedly sympathetic character, but it makes Cris appallingly heartless and insensitive. The implausibility of Next has nothing to do with Cris’ psychic powers but with the emotional context of absolutely anything here: in the era of Heroes, in which Hiro friggin’ teleports himself into the future and into the past and around the globe through sheer willpower and an irresistible desire to help complete strangers in an alien country, the callousness of Cris’ indifference is stunning, and renders him completely irrelevant. He is not a character who has any sympatico with a culture desperate for a sense of purpose, desperate to be called upon to sacrifice something beyond our credit rating for the greater good. Cris is worse than unlikable: he’s despicable.

Wait! It’s worser! Part of why Cris is distracted is because he’s suddenly madly in love with Jessica Biel (Home of the Brave, The Illusionist) — and who can blame him, but still — and they have a mad crazy romance that pops into existence out of nowhere. Their “relationship” would still be utterly emotionally false on its own, but combine it with the whole nuclear-terrorism plot, and it becomes one of the most howlingly inappropriate genre matchups in movie history.

A rogue nuke is on the loose and only a Vegas magician can save the day? That may be farfetched, but it’s got nothing on the male wish-fulfillment fantasy of this: A gorgeous woman is driving a strange man alone in her car through the desolate desert, a man she’s already accused, only half jokingly, of being psycho. No, that’s not the fantasy — it’s this: They’re forced to stop for the night at a motel, and he offers to sleep in the car before she can totally freak out at the situation, and yet, the next morning, she, fresh out of the shower, parades around in front of him in nothing but a skimpy towel. What planet do these guys — for the three screenwriters and the director are of course all male — live on?

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, and some language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb

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