Like most everyone else in this Us Weekly, Access Hollywood–ized world of ours, I know more than I’d like about the assorted catfights and chemical dependencies of the Paris, Lindsay, and Britney set. Thankfully, I also suffer from a sort of pop culture amnesia whereby the individual players in these tabloid dramas become one big blur. Exhibit A: The pride of Ely, Minnesota—Jessica Biel. With nary a blip on my radar, Biel catapulted from a supporting role as the preacher’s daughter on the WB hit 7th Heaven to Hollywood ingénue who regularly dukes it out with Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson for Sexiest Woman Alive honors.
Until her solid turn in The Illusionist last year, the most interesting thing about Biel was her Minnesota roots (proudly displayed, by the way, on her website, JesseBiel.com) and her promising decision to follow in the hot-girl-who-can-kick-butt template of Angelina Jolie. (Her sneaky decision to get out of her 7th Heaven contract with a topless appearance on the cover of a men’s magazine also upped the charm quotient.)
Now our homegrown starlet is acting alongside Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore in the sci-fi action stinker Next, which opened in theaters Friday. Directed by Lee Tamahori, whose previous credits (xXx: State of the Union, Die Another Day) don’t exactly portend good things, and adapted from a short story by novelist Philip K. Dick whose work sometimes does produce interesting films (Blade Runner, Minority Report), Next starts with a provocative premise and then quickly dissolves into the sort of ridiculousness only the crassest movie producer could love.
Cage plays a budget Vegas magician with an unfortunate talent: he can foresee the future—just two minutes, though, and only his own. That is, until he starts having dreamy visions of Biel, whose own future he can see into much further. Despite a really terrible haircut and the distant, crazed look that Cage is known for, his character stands a pretty good chance of winning her over because he knows exactly how she’ll respond to him. Romance isn’t in the cards though. Terrorists are plotting a nuclear attack on Los Angeles and Moore’s grumpy, humorless FBI agent sees Cage as their last hope. He doesn’t want any part of it.
There’s more to the story, of course, but not much more. And certainly not much that rings even remotely true. Action films have their own internal logic that often defies that of more character-driven narratives. When executed by pros even the implausibilities of their plots don’t matter because the thrill is in the ride, the unexpected twists and turns, the great special effects, the sense that the actors know precisely how absurd the story is and have gamely thrown themselves into the fray. Next has none of this. The dialogue is hollow, the villains so thinly drawn as to be nonexistent, and the performances by its Oscar-winning/nominated headliners perfunctory at best. To make matters worse, the whole thing has a cheap, thrown-together look that provokes unfortunate comparisons to movies produced long before CGI entered the popular movie lexicon. (When the action moves to the Grand Canyon—even a moving car—it looks like someone on the set is holding up fake backdrops.)
So where does this leave Biel? Marooned in a thankless role that requires her to look alternately pained, confused, sad, terrified, and, this being Hollywood . . . hot. It’s not a great performance, or even a good one. But it’s delivered with conviction and a sense that even dreck like this deserves to be taken seriously. And for that, Biel should too.