Clint Eastwood, long a critics' darling, is perhaps the most internationally lionized living movie director. His new film, "Hereafter," is also his most "European." It's trying very hard to be moody and intuitive and ruminative – all those things that American movies aren't supposed to be.
But the moodiness often registers as glumness, the intuitions are engineered, and the ruminations are on par with the metaphysical hoo-ha of, say, "The Razor's Edge," a book/movie/remake of which I am not overly fond.
The big surprise here is not only that Eastwood directed "Hereafter" but that Peter Morgan, heretofore known for such wit-laced historical dramas as "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon," did the screenplay. There are a lot of muscle pulls in this stretching exercise.
It begins with its best sequence – a massive tsunami that devastates an Indonesian beach town and provides French TV journalist Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), vacationing with her boyfriend, Didier (Thierry Neuvic), with a near-death experience in which she glimpses denizens of the great (and fuzzy) beyond. Shaken, she takes a leave of absence from her job to write a book – ostensibly on former French president François Mitterand but, as it turns out, on the hereafter and the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding it.
Eastwood and Morgan have added two additional stories, all of which converge, not very convincingly, in a grand summa at the end.
The first is about George (Matt Damon), a reluctant medium who believes he is far more cursed than blessed by his gift for communicating with the dead. All he has to do is touch a person and – whammo! –a connection is created.
Despite the entreaties of his mercenary brother (Jay Mohr), George, whose idea of entertainment is listening to audiobooks of Charles Dickens novels as he drops off to sleep, is no longer accepting clients, no matter how bereaved. He has become a factory worker who, looking to find a social life, enrolls in an Italian cooking class, where his flirtatious cooking partner, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), makes the mistake of pressing him to prove his powers.
The second additional story, which in some ways is the best, is about Marcus, a young English boy whose twin brother Jason is killed, leading him to seek out Jason's spirit in an earthly world teeming with charlatans and indifference. (The boys are played by George and Frankie McClaren.) Little Marcus, in foster care after being removed from his drug-addicted mother, is palpably lonely. He wears his brother's hat and expertly sifts through the many Internet psychic fakers before deciding that George is the real deal.
The three stories coverge at a London book fair, where closure, even happiness, await all. Who said publishing is dead? (Or, in this case, undead.)
I realize it's bad manners to be flip about a movie that emblazons its heart on its sleeve. But "Hereafter," soggy with portentous uplift, invites that response. Eastwood, who also wrote the simple score, inexplicably lays in (uncredited) wayward snatches from Rachmaninoff – specifically, the second piano concerto that did such yeoman work in "Brief Encounter." He gives us glimpses of the next world that look like digitized outtakes from the alien embarkation in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Throughout the movie, the sentiments that come back from the dead are invariably upstanding, as if Hallmark had cornered the market on pensées from the netherworld.
George, a rather dull fellow, may be racked by his gift, but there's precious little psychological examination of what such abilities would do to a person. (I have a feeling it would involve more than cooking classes and Charles Dickens audiobooks.)
The filmmakers have constructed a universe that is beyond skepticism or rational retort.
This is their right, but it makes for a rather tenuous movie experience. It's not that great movies can't be constructed around such themes. Dreyer and Bergman and Mizoguchi, for starters, didn't do a half-bad job of mucking around in the great beyond. (Neither did Shakespeare.) But the pained people with whom we are encouraged to identify in "Hereafter" are viewed solely through a misty, spiritualized lens that often seems uncomfortably, and unadmittingly, close to quackery.
Eastwood and Morgan are not con artists, but their awe here is so unblinking that their film comes across as a transcendent con job. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language.)
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