Damon Saves Clint Eastwood's Ambitious 'Hereafter'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The latest directorial effort from Clint Eastwood is a film of rather rare ambition. "Hereafter," from a script by Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "The Last King of Scotland," "Frost/Nixon") attempts to create a serious drama, as opposed to a genre exercise, out of speculations concerning the afterlife and the supernatural. Contrary to what you might have gleaned from the film's ads and prerelease publicity, this isn't a Matt Damon starring vehicle; rather, it's an ensemble film with multiple story lines that the audience trusts will somehow converge in spite of being set in segments of the globe rather distantly flung from one another.
In a scenic, cozy San Francisco, Damon's character is a disillusioned psychic whose ability to see into the pasts of people he touches -- and, further, to communicate with the people those people have lost -- has brought untold misery and loneliness to his life. To the frustration of his would-be wheeler-dealer brother (a rather alarmingly bloated Jay Mohr), he's given up a lucrative professional practice and seeks anonymity in construction work, and looks for companionship by enrolling in a cooking class. It's obvious to the audience that he's going to have to come to term with what others call his gift, and what he calls a curse, some time before the film ends.
And in London, a pair of preteen twin boys, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) lean on each other as their mother wallows in drug and alcohol abuse. They collaborate on homework, contrive to hold the nosy social services folks at arm's length, and generally keep each other's chins up. This is until an awful accident tears them apart, and sets one of them on what seems like a futile journey to find the other.
But the film begins in a sun-drenched Pacific resort with a couple of attractive French people lolling in vacation time, until a tsunami knocks the stuffing out of their fun, and it's here that the film's many problems start turning up. As the nearly drowned Marie (Cécile De France) submerges, an awfully adorable teddy bear is floating into what would have been her view, had she the ability to see it. And one thinks, "Lotso? Is that you?" after which one thinks, "Really? You're going with the teddy bear option?"
In any event, Marie is pulled back from the brink of death, but her apprehension of the hereafter spells the ruin of her lucrative career as a television newscaster, as her compulsion to explore, research and write about her discovery gets her ostracized by fellow professionals and ejected from the bed of the lover she had been vacationing with in the first place. But for a while it seems like every thoughtful grace note this film hits is countered by a big honking raspberry, or a plausibility stretch that even those among us given to forgiving plausibility stretches can't get around, or something.
Eastwood partisans (and I ought to admit here that I've frequently been accused of being one) have taken to blaming Morgan's script, which definitely has its issues, but it can't be said that its structural aspirations test credulity in the same way a film such as "Babel" did. Still, they are a little on the pat side.
But let's get real: While by this time, all of us being grownups and such, we know that Eastwood is not himself Dirty Harry, we can also surmise that he's not the sort of man, or the sort of filmmaker, to whose head one can put a gun (metaphorical or otherwise) and say, "You'll shoot what is written, as it's written, or else." As has been a longtime practice, he's both director and producer here, so if he thought Morgan's script could have used a bit of fixing, he could have gone and gotten it fixed. And anyway, a lot of what's bad here has nothing to do with the script. For instance, during the film's wobbly cooking-school scenes, I thought, "Wow, who's that poor young actress that Eastwood is compelling to perform this terrible Bryce Dallas Howard impersonation?" Turned out it was, um ... Bryce Dallas Howard.
So why am I rating this film as high as I do? Because once it finds its footing, it becomes, at least for this viewer, genuinely and deeply moving, and Damon's performance in particular grows into something uncanny and beautiful. As much as there is to forgive here, the payoff proved that some things really are worth the forgiving.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com