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"Hereafter" Review: Naive, Inept Yet Corny and Charming

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So after a nice little run of films, everyone's—or at least most film writers'—favorite actor-director to dump on, Clint Eastwood, returns with Hereafter, his muddled attempt at a New Age suspense thriller. As someone once said, fault with Eastwood's films can usually be traced back to the script, here by Peter Morgan (The Queen), as if to exonerate the filmmaker, who generally avoids substantial rewrites. And Hereafter, as naive and inept as it often is, is not without its charm. But its structure, a three-pronged storyline which slowly converges as it approaches the climax, has long past worn out any profundity it may (with emphasis) had ever possessed in cinema.

Hereafter begins with a potent scene not dissimilar from one you'd find in a disaster movie, with French TV reporter Marie Lelay (Cécile de France) drowning in a tsunami while on assignment in Thailand. She is resuscitated, but the devastation of her surroundings, and her near-death experience leave her traumatized. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, George Lonergan (Matt Damon), a lonely blue-collar worker with a sharp sense of precognition is reluctantly "reading" a client (Richard Kind) of his brother Billy's (Jay Mohr). The skeptical subject is shocked at George's accuracy, while Billy beams. But Lonergan feels his power is more curse than gift, an invasive power by which people usually define him while they ignore the lonely man who owns it. And in London, the young introspective Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) loses his identical twin, Marcus, to a violent crime after Marcus was sent to the drugstore to pick up a prescription for their strung-out mum (Lyndsey Marshal). Moved into a foster home while Mum cleans up, he goes on a quest to communicate with his deceased brother, his only friend taken too soon.

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As Eastwood ages, his work has taken an elegiac tone, particularly in his last three films. If Gran Torino (2008) sees Eastwood burying his onscreen persona (so far it looks to be his last performance), and Invictus (2009) has him investigating a great man's legacy, the earthly accomplishments he leaves behind for posterity, Hereafter is his departure to the undiscovered country. And for the taciturn Eastwood, whose films have usually fared best within the realm of the concrete, this exploration brushes too close to the fanciful instead of the spiritual.

Hereafter sometimes coasts on the kind of corny charm which has always been central to the appeal of Eastwood: the contrivance of Lonergan interacting with a potential soulmate (a goofily endearing Bryce Dallas Howard) in a night class on cooking in a sensual scene in which they must feed each other bites of food while blindfolded and describe their sensations to each other; the way the camera lingers on the sunny face of De France who, minus the gap-toothed smile, often recalls Daryl Hannah circa 1982 in Blade Runner.

Unfortunately, moments do not make a film, or at least not Hereafter. Eastwood's overextends with a story akin to a paranormal Crash (Paul Haggis' pretentious 2004 film, not Cronenberg's ingenious thriller). Lelay, Lonergan, and Jason all cross each other's paths in a London Book fair while each helps the other get one step closer to resolving their questions about what lies beyond. This is all handled with an earnest romanticism characteristic of the director, an understandable crutch to lean on because Eastwood is venturing into new territory (for him). Hereafter often gives the impression of a precocious child's guileless journey into an unknown world which awaits him. In this way, Eastwood is much like the film's intrepid Jason, searching for answers as he prepares for a new stage. I'd be interested in seeing whether Eastwood's next piece continues in such a progression but with the requisite maturity he's brought to his filmography over his long career.