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Next **½

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Nicolas Cage struggles to save Southern California from a nuclear holocaust in Next.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Thomas Kretschmann, Tory Kittles. Rated PG-13.

Step aside, Jack Bauer. Meet Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage), a Vegas magician whose clairvoyance is no parlor trick. That’s right, Cris, the hero of director Lee Tamahori’s Next, can see exactly two minutes into his own future, an ability he passes off as illusionist shtick to avoid scrutiny. But lately, Cris has been having visions of a beautiful stranger, a woman whose future is clearly mapped out in his mind. He resolves to find her, because maybe she’s “the one.”

The stranger turns out to be Liz (Jessica Biel), a schoolteacher with a heart of gold and a dangerously possessive ex-boyfriend. Having foreseen their initial encounter, Cris finds her at a roadside diner, dutifully allows her ex to manhandle him, and accepts her sympathy in the form of a ride to Flagstaff. They become fast friends, and it seems inevitable that romance will follow.

There’s only one problem. Cris is wanted by the FBI, not because he’s committed any serious crimes – though he does have a pesky habit of stealing cars – but because their top field agent (Julianne Moore) believes he can prevent the detonation of a nuclear device on U.S. soil. (By whom? The Russians, of course!) It’s not entirely clear why the FBI believes Cris can help, since his foresight is so limited and self-absorbed, but they devote all their resources to finding him. Not wanting to become a government guinea pig, Cris makes himself scarce.

If this sounds like an episode of 24 with an added touch of the absurd, you’re not far off. It is based, however loosely, on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose paranoid fantasies inspired Minority Report and Total Recall, among others. Not since 2003’s Paycheck have Dick’s writings been put to sillier use, though Next is rarely dull. Its premise is promising, and there are moments of rare elegance that transcend a script riddled with holes big enough to drive the entire plot through. In the end, one can’t help but think that a fresher, more intelligent movie could have been made about Cris and his unique condition, without all the usual nonsense about terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.

Next has a surprise ending, and the biggest surprise is that it actually works. It’s a richly satisfying payoff, and it makes you want to forgive the movie its mindless self-indulgences – but not quite. By the slightest of margins, and despite typically solid contributions from Moore and Biel, Next misses its mark, lacking the vision to rank with the best adaptations of Dick’s high-minded fiction.

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