“Next Exit” is about a cross-country drive in pursuit of a supervised “research study” suicide, and as such, it’s more a road comedy than an existential quest. Not that first-time feature writer-director Mali Elfman doesn’t try to have it both ways.
Two strangers decide to drive rather than fly cross country to their date with death. They “meet cute” and set off angry sparks that turn even angrier as their reasons for wanting to end it all become clear. But as they encounter other people along the way and make detours into their pasts, we and they come to understand how they came to this place in their lives that makes them want to end them.
That’s classic “road picture” formula, and it’s about as predictable as the film’s finale, which we guess the moment Rose cranks up their rented Jeep Grand Cherokee in NYC for the drive to San Francisco. But it’s not the journey, it’s the destination, right?
A clever opening has a little boy talking to his newly-ajar bedroom closet door, and then we see the camera set up in his room and the card game little Rio is playing with his recently-deceased father. This “irrefutable evidence” of “life beyond” death is “world changing” and “culture shifting.” And after the researcher (Karen Gillan) who made this discovery woodenly lectures a TV camera about what her Life Beyond research study is doing, we get a glimpse of what she means.
News coverage about a world in economic decline and the mass depression and suicide spike that accompanies it tells us that this “irrefutable proof” has people literally dying to find out what comes next. And Dr. Stevenson (Gillan) is helping, doing research that is “ushering us into the next era in human existence.” Kind of makes it hard for anybody to plan anything, though. And don’t even think about what a mass exodus would do to the global economy.
One person who’s had enough of this life are Rose (Katie Parker of “The Haunting of Bly Manor”), who goes by her middle name because what adult would want to be called “Blossom” in this day and age? As that’s what’s on her driving license, she’s irked every time someone makes that mistake. Rose is irked by default. And she trots out her resting bitch face to the rental car agent who has a problem with her reservation, and the hapless Brit expat Teddy (Rahul Kohli, also of “Haunting of Bly Manor”) fated to share this drive to The End with her.
The Life Beyond Institute has accepted them as “participants,” test subjects for this ongoing research. That entails assisted suicide, with these two having appointments five and seven days from now.
Rose is in a fury — testy and rude, with enough self-loathing to want to kill herself, but enough loathing left over to take in her new road buddy Teddy. She’s so hostile no jokes can defuse the ticking time bomb in her soul.
“If you mind me dead in the morning,” Teddy helpfully tells a motel clerk, “SHE did it.”
Their road trip will lightly sample some of the consequences of an unhappy nation deciding “F— it, I’m done.” A depressed stranger throws himself in front of the Jeep. An obsolete priest can’t get his mind around this eagerness to exit. A sad barfly tells of the people he’s killed before shooting up the roadhouse TV.
But Teddy, a binge eater and fan of fried meat and junk food in its many forms, resolves that they should “try and have some fun” along the way. So scratch “shoplifting Pabst Blue Ribbon from a Texas convenience store” off your bucket lists, kids. Let the good times roll.
The novelty in this is the whole “existence beyond death thing” and Elfman — yes, she’s Danny’s daughter — spends some time and production money on visually imagining that “beyond.” There’s even a hint of what this knowledge does to some people’s psyches, butjust a hint. Mainly, this is a dark — very dark — romantic comedy and mystery. The mystery is whether their fated romance is enough to mend people broken enough to want to kill themselves.
Parker and Kohli have a nice, mismatched chemistry and their banter lightens the film, which has stretches where we worry it’ll be content to be just gloomy and depressing. Gillan gives off her usual metallic vibe, here in service of a sort of Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos “new science” hustler.
Like life itself, “Next Exit” is very much a mixed bag — tiny triumphs weighed down by a lifetime of tragedies, guilt, blame and regret in a film that works as a road comedy and kind of works as an exploration of existential crisis, just not as well.
Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, violence, profanity
Cast: Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli and Karen Gillan
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mali Elfman, A Magnet/Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:46