His name is Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), the kind of handle that suggests someone destined to be a private dick from the moment the doc slapped his pink keister. He’s not a detective, though. Not really. Nick deals in memories. In the retro-dystopic Miami that he calls home — the city still scarred from the “Border Wars,” the downtown backalleys now beachfront property thanks to rising tides and climate change — there’s a booming business to be had from the past. Nick and Watts (Thandie Newton), his partner and overall gal Friday, put clients in a tank, turn a few dials, and voila. Someone can relive their favorite day, or hour, or moment, for a price. They’re called “reminiscences.” That’s his trade.
Occasionally, Nick will help the police out with a case — say, if a defendant has evidence of a crime lodged in his noggin. Mostly, he deals with your everyday rich folks, the kind who have a lot of dough to spend on fading high points and fugue states. The gumshoe thing isn’t really his racket. And yet: Down these mean, flooded streets this man must, er, splash and/or sail, who is not himself mean, neither tarnished nor afraid. A man, stubbly and world-weary, who drops voiceover nuggets like “She was an idea wrapped in a tight dress” and “The past doesn’t haunt us…we haunt the past.” He’s Sam Spade and Phil Marlowe and the Continental Op in all but name.
So of course a dame walks into his office, the one with the mile-long gams and a closet filled with endless gowns from the Jessica Rabbit eveningwear collection and a vibe that screams “Femme Fatale, incoming!” She goes by Mae (Rebecca Ferguson). A nightclub singer, specializing in torch songs and sultry glares. She claims that she wants to find her missing keys. It’s a ruse. Nick falls for her, hard. They’re in love. Suddenly, one day, Mae’s gone. Vanished. M.I.A. For months, Nick tries to track her down, despite everyone telling him she was no good, that he needs to let it go. Now he’s spending a lotta time in the memory machine, poring over their romance’s greatest hits. Then Nick and Watts are asked to dig through the recorded mind-file of a witness in a drug-related murder from a few years back, and guess who shows up in the cerebral flashback as a supporting player?
By this point, you’ve likely figured out that Reminiscence is one of those movies that has one jaundiced eye on yesterday and the other on a worst-case-scenario tomorrow, a pulp throwback spackled with sci-fi touches to fill in the stylistic blanks. The pedigree is strong for this kind of mix here, given that writer-director Lisa Joy is one half of the braintrust behind HBO’s Westworld. (Speaking of the premium cable network, the film premieres on HBO Max and opens in theaters on August 20th, because, well, welcome to moviegoing circa 2021.) She’s dotted the cast with some of the show’s MVPs, notably Newton and Angela Sarafyan, a.k.a. the cracked android Clementine, as one of Nick’s regular customers who ends up being peripherally involved in the bigger picture. Corruption is always a factor in these stories, where a single pulled thread reveals an unraveling blanket of social rot. Behind every fortune is a crime, and Joy has fashioned a sort of reverse Chinatown: Where that Seventies classic revolved around water, this 21st century mash-up centers around the rare currency of dry land.
There’s a bigger mystery worth solving then the one swirling around the center of this future-shocked neonoir-by-numbers, which is: Why does it feel so D.O.A.? Yes, Jackman feels oddly miscast as the heartbroken white knight poking his nose into all sorts of dirty business, but you can’t place the blame squarely on his broad shoulders. Ferguson makes for a fine femme fatale, even if she eventually gives up trying to color outside the lines of this sketch of a mystery-woman character. The soft-boiled pulp dialogue (“You’ve got balls, Bocce-size!”) does no one any favors. Both the sunken South Beach setting and the concept of a service catering to yesteryear junkies go from intriguing twist to novelty with a depressing rapidity.
Although Reminiscence doesn’t try to hide any inherent metaphors — what are most movies these days, really, but nostalgia machines, designed for those stuck in the past? — it doesn’t do much with the material besides fashion something like a a dull-edged Blade Runner. All that’s left is irony: For a would-be brainteasing thriller so obsessed with memories, Reminiscence is almost painfully, instantly forgettable.