REVIEW: Hereafter Ponders the Question, What Happens After We Die? Hint: It's Blurry
In Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks' "2,000-Year-Old Man" routine, the aged one reflects on a long-ago time when he and his fellow villagers worshiped a local guy named Phil because, as scripture has it, "He was big, he was mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands." One day Phil was struck dead by a lightning bolt, prompting an epiphany among the locals: "There's something bigger than Phil." Hereafter is Clint Eastwood's "There's something bigger than Phil" movie: What happens after we die? Do we just dissolve into dust and that's the end of it? Or do we enter a corridor in which blurry figures murmur unintelligibly as they bump into one another?
From the looks of Hereafter, both Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan are banking on the latter; it's about as much of an explanation as they can offer in this dorky, self-serious little picture in which Matt Damon plays a former professional psychic who's ditched his old livelihood for factory work. "What I have isn't a gift but a curse!" he wails to anyone who will listen, explaining why he now refuses to see, speak with, or even acknowledge dead people. Dead people, you're dead to me! That's the new motto of Damon's George Lonegan, much to the chagrin of his brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), who used to run George's business affairs and who misses his old meal ticket.
What George doesn't know is that somewhere out there, in faraway lands, are two living people who either share his anguish or who could potentially benefit from his help. Marie (played by Cècile de France, perhaps best known for her role in the 2007 French wartime drama A Secret, and here sporting a tousled-to-perfection hairdo) is a French television journalist who survives -- barely -- the horror of a tsunami that strikes on the last day of her holiday at a tropical getaway spot. She returns to her job, but she's so shaken up by her near-death experience that she can barely function on-camera -- she dazedly lobs a softball question to a slick fatcat who's touting the efficiency of sweatshop labor. She becomes an afterlife junkie, scrapping the eggheady book on Francois Mitterand she's supposed to write to spread the gospel of one wriggly, indistinct idea: There's just got to be life after death, but the government -- or someone -- is hiding it from us.
Meanwhile, over in a London council flat, a set of underfed-looking yet totally adorable twin boys, aged 11 or so (they're played by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren) huddle together like the Gish sisters, depending on one another for survival. They're practically, and even quite efficiently, raising themselves, covering for their heroin-addict mom (Lyndsey Marshall) whenever the people from social services come to call. A horrific turn of events leaves one twin sadly trolling the Internet for psychic help: He checks out a passel of charlatans before finding George's languishing web site, from which Matt Damon's eyes stare like glowing blue orbs, above the legend, "Genuinely talks with the dead."
No, he really, really talks with the dead -- I'm not kidding. That turns dating into a special kind of hell for George, as we learn when he tries to make it with a fellow cooking-class attendee (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, aggressively blinking a set of unfortunate, burlesque-caliber false eyelashes); she begs him to tell her what all the dead people in her life are saying about (and to) her, only to flee like a frightened doe when she realizes he's the man who knows too much.
These three central characters need to find one another, but how? The circuitous and wholly coincidental trail of bread crumbs leading to their connection is the wobbly backbone of Hereafter, which is to say it's hardly a backbone at all. Eastwood attempts to pose some lyrical, quasi-spiritual questions and comes up with an overboiled drama that's merely boring.
It's hard to know how much of what's wrong with Hereafter stems from Morgan's screenplay, which lacks the characteristic tartness (and brains) of other movies he's written, like The Queen and Frost/Nixon. The picture's faux-intricate structure doesn't mask the reality that there's just not much going on here. And the filmmaking choices Eastwood has made here range from merely misguided to numbingly dopey. The picture opens with a massive visual-effects tidal wave that looks as if it belongs in another movie. It's impressive, but that's exactly the problem: Its heavy-duty wow factor kicks off a picture that's built on a pretty wispy premise -- Eastwood wants to grab our attention, but he only lets it trickle away.
Worried that you might have trouble visualizing what goes on in a psychic's mind? Don't be. Eastwood takes care of all of that, sort of. Every time Damon's George makes a psychic connection we hear a thunderous crack; then we see an assortment of shimmery, murky, ghosty-gray figures trying to step around one another and muttering, "Pardon me." No wonder the guy likes factory work. Still, he's lonely, which we know from watching him sit all by himself at his little kitchen table, lifting fork to mouth with arduous absent-mindedness as he eats, alone. Even if we couldn't see how alone he is, Eastwood takes pains to let us know via the plaintive solo guitar plinking in the background. (The score is by Eastwood himself.)
George may be oh-so-ronery now, but by the end of Hereafter, he'll find true love (at a Pizza Express in London, no less) and his psychic visions won't hurt so much anymore. Damon is more believable, and more likable, than anyone in a role like this ought to be. His solid casualness works in his favor, offsetting the movie's airy, indistinct position on just what the afterlife might be like. Of course, no one knows that, so the best Hereafter can do is hazard a guess. My only hope is that it will actually be in focus.