Next has a pretty good premise — thanks to the Philip K. Dick story it’s “based” on — and a fun setting. Nicolas Cage is a fourth-tier Vegas magician who has the power to see two minutes into his own future, which gives him the handy ability to clean up at the blackjack table, duck a gunshot, or try out multiple pick-up lines on the hot girl in the corner booth at the coffee shop. As represented visually, it’s less of a see-into-the-future proposition than a quick rewind — we see him trying out different strategies inside his head, then essentially backing up and trying a different angle until he finds one that works. (Maybe it should have been called Tivo.) So the concept is kind of fun, but the screenwriters (there are three of them credited) kill the buzz in several ways.
First, they drag the aforementioned hot girl into the story by positing that, while Cage can see only a couple of minutes into his own future, he can see much farther into Jessica Biel’s future — but only, apparently, as her future relates to his own. (The voyeuristic possibilities are endless and unexplored.) This complication is key to the unfolding of a complex narrative, but there’s not even a perfunctory explanation of it — unless you believe that this is simply the universe’s way of hooking Cage up with a woman who’s young enough to be his daughter. (There’s an inadvertently hilarious moment when Biel, who’s agreed to drive Cage to Flagstaff, says she’ll kick him out of her car as soon as she picks up a “psycho vibe.” Ha ha, because audiences have been getting that psycho vibe from Cage for more than 20 years.)
Second, said screenwriters saddle their story with a Jack Bauer narrative involving a group of cut-rate, vaguely multinational terrorists (are they French-Canadian?) trying to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. It’s just about impossible to care about any of this, especially when Cage breaks the plot wide open by (SPOILER!) seeing into the future of a cable news channel.
Finally, and most disastrously, they deploy a third-act twist that’s so smug and charmless that it negates any lingering investment the audience still has in the generic guns-and-bombs goings-on. I saw this at a Saturday matinee in a suburban theater where audiences are normally pretty passive, and as the credits started rolling, the guy behind me yelled at the screen: “That sucked!” Somebody else just laughed long and loud. No matter how well the narrative worked (or didn’t work) up to that point, this was a serious miscalculation.
It might be unfair to complain about the screenplay out of context, because a different director (Lee Tamahori only seems in his element working with a certain kind of action set piece) might have been able to put the material across more convincingly, or at least with a more vibrant sense of fun. And I can’t be the only one feeling a bad case of Nic Cage fatigue, since one of the best laughs in Grindhouse was a goof on his current on-screen ubiquity. I didn’t actually see the much-maligned remake of The Wicker Man, but the YouTube remix of that film gave me one of the best laughs I’ve had so far this year. If you missed it, here it is.
If Cage’s strategy is to value quantity over quality, it’s less clear what Julianne Moore is doing here, miscast as a tough-talking FBI agent. Jessica Biel actually comes across pretty well in an undemanding role, and it’s nice to see Peter Falk (who apparently won’t appear in a final Columbo TV movie because he’s too old) in a cameo. Nobody involved will get a career boost from this one.