Friday, January 28, 2011

Hereafter Movie Review: Eastwood the Director Plods Through the Afterlife

Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard have a touching moment.

I think maybe I’m growing weary of Clint Eastwood the director. Critics, like me, have been singing his praises since Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, but his recent output may cause me to reevaluate what I once thought were excellent movies (Unforgiven and A Perfect World remain untouchable, however). Like Woody Allen, he churns out movie after movie each year (sometimes two!) with gradually diminishing returns. Sure, there may be the occasional spark of something genuine or original, but mostly it feels like he’s on autopilot. His films are more often than not dripping with forced sentimentality, supported by musical scores (composed by Eastwood) that have become repetitive and seldom have any forward motion.

All of these criticisms are true of his latest film, Hereafter, which stars Matt Damon as George Lonegan, a psychic reader with the honest ability to make connections with the dead. He has given up his lucrative business in favor of a simpler life as a factory worker.

George’s is only one of three stories about death and loneliness played out simultaneously in Peter Morgan’s screenplay. One involves Marcus, a boy of about 12 in London whose twin brother is tragically killed. The other is Marie (Cécile De France), a French journalist from Paris who was on assignment in Thailand when the tsunami of 2004 strikes. She has a near-death experience and is miraculously resuscitated. It must be noted that it feels crass to extract a story of a famous French white woman from a calamity that killed hundreds of thousands of poor Asians.

The tsunami sequence opens the movie and is meant to be a big effects moment. Somehow, Hereafter was awarded an Oscar nomination for its visual effects, which looked to me to be a cheap knock-off of the effects used in films like The Perfect Storm and The Day After Tomorrow. Fine, an Eastwood film doesn’t work with the same budget as a summer blockbuster, but the CGI used to create the wave and the resulting destruction looked low-budget to the point of being distracting.

Back in France, Marie can’t shake the thoughts of her experience. As a person who has spent her career investigating and adhering to facts, she needs to understand what happened. Taking some time out from her TV program, she is commissioned to write a book on Francois Miterrand, but instead uses the advance money to conduct research and write a memoir of her tunnel of light experience. Her publisher is understandably upset, but that only lasts a short time and soon he’s putting her in touch with American and British publishers who may be interested.

Marcus, who seemed desperately sad even before his brother’s death, plunges into himself after the funeral. His mother is a drug addict seeking treatment, which forces Marcus into foster care. This whole subplot is just one of several examples of the enigmatic puzzle that is Morgan’s screenplay. There seem to be all these pieces that will fit together in the end, but ultimately they come across as vaguely random. Does Marcus’s sadness and looking for answers through various psychics (charlatans all, by the way, all but George) need to be augmented by the loss of his mother?

I don’t particularly want to pile on to a child actor, but the performance of Frankie and George McLaren (they share the role of Marcus) is barely developed beyond the kind of line readings you might hear in an elementary school stage production. When he crouches over his brother’s body and pleads, “Don’t go. I need you. Don’t leave me alone,” I felt like I was listening to a bored script reader. But this is not the fault of the young actors but rather a casting director and director who were more concerned with an adorable face and sad eyes than with any ability whatsoever in front of the camera.

This is simply a lazy screenplay and a real letdown from the man who penned The Queen, and Frost/Nixon. George’s brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), is more than eager for George to start earning money from his gift again, even going so far as to find suitable office space. What is Billy’s motivation exactly? No explanation is ever offered leaving me to assume that it’s a mechanical device to highlight how little George wants to pursue it and also to set up the conclusion of the film.

What about Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), the young woman who barges in late to George’s cooking class, complaining loudly to everyone about the traffic (who does that outside of movies?). She is presented as a possible romantic interest for George and though he is very clear early on about not talking about his previous job, when pushed he not only tells her, but sallies forth with the whole story and concludes by giving her a reading. This whole scene makes absolutely no sense and serves little purpose outside of demonstrating how George does a reading. Except we’d already seen it once before!

Convention dictates that at some point the three stories will converge and of course they do. I think Morgan wants it all to fit together and Eastwood tries to oblige, but they both seem to be on vacation. There are deliberate shots used in the tsunami sequence (a close up of Marie’s bracelet; focus on a stuffed bear she was buying) that call attention to themselves in a way that suggest they will have some importance. However, it remains a mystery to me, as does the reason anyone thought this story was worth Eastwood’s talent behind the camera.

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