Clint Eastwood’s latest, Hereafter, looks at the life-after-death question. I went to see it because I like it when movies plunge into the life-after-death question, which so often involves ghosts and paranormal weirdness and crazy psychic visions and mystic hoo-ha and all that kind of stuff movies can do really well. I was surprised that Eastwood decided to take it on. So loopy and lurid, I mean. Not Oscar material, as a rule.
But you guessed it, Eastwood found a way to turn the whole thing into a big drag. Possibly an Oscar-worthy drag!
Maybe I should mention I’m not a big fan of Clint Eastwood, filmmaker. He seems like an earnest director of human-interest dramas, with messages so big you can see them galumphing toward you from miles and miles away. Invictus deals with apartheid, and Million Dollar Babymakes people cry over euthanasia, and Gran Torino highlights racism and the generation gap, and even Unforgiven, the best of the Eastwood-directed lot, has a chewy American Violence issue for concerned citizens to get their teeth into if they really must.
I realize most people like that kind of stuff. It wins the awards, and people say afterwards, “It really made me think.” (Just don’t ask, “About what?” It’s a real conversation-stopper.)
In Hereafter, Matt Damon plays George the sad psychic, who’s trying to stay out of the lucrative ESP racket because, ironically, he connects so intensely to his clients’ inner lives it destroys his chances for “normal” connections with people. (Note to screenwriter regarding the moldy cliché about psychics suffering from supernatural over-connection: “normal” connections with people are rotten and unenviable, as a rule. Look around. Paranormal connections would almost have to be more rewarding, or more interesting, or at least no worse than regular ones. Just saying.)
So George the sad psychic is trying to go mainstream by working a blue-collar job that requires wearing a hardhat. Who knew that those jobs were readily available for ex-mediums, when most actual blue-collar workers in this country can’t land them anymore?
George also takes an Italian cooking class. Screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) has the oddest ideas about normal life in America.
While we’re following this mopey series of non-events, we track two other equally morose story-lines involving lives touched by the “hereafter”: a fetching French reporter (Cecile de France) who almost drowns in a tidal wave and has a near-death vision, and a melancholy Brit boy trying to communicate with his deceased twin brother (both played by twins George and Frankie McLaren). You have to wait a long time for the stories to intertwine, and when they do it’s at a book fair.
Eastwood endeavors to neutralize anything onscreen that might get exciting. It’s a movie that starts with a tidal wave and then doggedly course-corrects so it can arrive at a book fair. It’s a movie about a guy who’s a real psychic but is determined not to have any more psychic visions, which threatens to make it a movie about…a guy.
Not that it’s impossible to make an exciting movie about a guy who doesn’t want to be a real psychic. If you ever get a chance, see the 1948 film noir Night Has 1000 Eyeswith Edward G. Robinson, based on a typically loony Cornell Woolrich novel.
Old Eddie G., king of the great ugly actors, plays a charlatan with a successful fake-psychic act who suddenly develops true mediumistic powers right in the middle of a phony public reading. From then on he’s plagued by visions of how and when everyone he meets will die. Then he starts to wonder if he’s the catalyst–if by seeing people’s deaths he somehow makes them happen. So he hides out for a while in seedy noir poverty—hard-hat jobs weren’t so readily available to ex-mediums then, I guess.
But he can’t avoid everybody all the time, which is a problem even us non-psychics can relate to. He meets Gail Russell and sees that she’s about to be murdered, and Gail Russell is so beautiful no one could let her be murdered without putting up a struggle, so he has to test his powers to derail the fate he envisions.
Anyway, the point is, it can be done. Interesting movies about reluctant psychics, I mean.
Halfway through Hereafter, the elderly Asian couple sitting in the row behind me fell into a restful slumber, both snoring in pleasant contrapuntal harmony. That was quite a cinematic feat, I thought. I’ve seen movies that put one old person to sleep, but two? Never before.
Since I stayed awake throughout, it was actually a pretty strenuous viewing experience, trying to will the movie to be better. Actors clearly like working with Eastwood, who by all reports let’s them do what they want as long as they can nail each scene in one or two takes. So he gets affecting moments out of gifted actors like Matt Damon. Certain scenes would gel around him for awhile, and I’d find myself mentally urging those scenes away from obvious pitfalls. For instance, Damon has several scenes with Jay Mohr, playing his brother Billy (both of them distractingly beefy, in “regular guy” mode) who keeps urging him to go back into the profitable psychic-reading business. George explains why all that profit doesn’t make up for the torment of knowing too much about other people.
“But it’s a gift,” his brother says.
At that point I pray to the movie gods, “Just don’t let George say, ‘It’s not a gift, it’s a curse.’ Any other line but that one!”
Then George says, “It’s not a gift, it’s a curse.”
And just to rub it in, Damon has to say the same line twice more later on, as if it were the freshest, most insightful thing ever written for an actor playing a psychic. And Eastwood allows this to go on!
Eastwood and Morgan are like twin souls in their mutual love of cliché. For instance, the fetching Frenchwoman is the Frenchiest Frenchwoman alive (though I understand the actress is a Belgian, her name, Cecile de France, shows that she knows how to market herself), practically wearing a beret and saying Ooh-la-la. When the she’s about to be caught in the tidal wave, she interacts briefly with a little girl holding a stuffed animal, and thus it’s instantly obvious that the girl’s DOA, and the stuffed animal will be seen floating symbolically adrift, like the little girl’s disembodied soul. Done and done. Then there’s the wistful, sensitive piano music that comes in on cue every time some lonely character walks through the streets of Paris or London or San Francisco thinking otherworldly thoughts. This piano music sounds like the generic downloadable kind available to all amateur filmmakers. “Wistful Piano Music for the Lonely Character Walk Through the City.”
The urge to shout “Shoot the piano player!” gets pretty intense by the end.
Really accomplished actors can get through an amazing load of triteness unscathed. But Hereafteris remarkable for the sheer range of performance ability, from the excellent (Damon, the McLaren twins, Richard Kind as someone who gets a psychic reading, the woman who plays the heroin addict mother of the twins) through the pretty good (Cecile de France) to the iffy (Jay Mohr) to the stinking rotten (Bryce Dallas Howard).
This is as good a time as any to recommend that Bryce Dallas Howard be done away with. She’s the most grating actress of her generation, which is saying a lot, and no matter how many M. Night Shyamalan flops she stars in, her career sails on. Daughter of Ron Howard is an excellent gig in Hollywood, obviously. But there’s no reason why she can’t be hit by a speeding van while crossing a street in L.A., is there? IS THERE?
In HereafterB.D. Howard takes up a ridiculous amount of screen time as a silly woman Damon meets in his cooking class and tries to have a “normal” relationship with. Anyone could take one look at this wacko and know enough to sidle away, but Damon has to pretend to be charmed by her shrill giggle and acting-school flutter of tics. Eastwood films her relentlessly in close-up, too, so that we’re forced to study her pale spacey eyes and the batty way she oversells every expression and gesture. There’s a painfully boring blindfolded food-tasting scene with Damon and Howard that’s supposed to be mildly erotic, and Eastwood lets the camera run on her as lovingly as if Ron Howard stood just offscreen holding the photos of the bestial orgy he and Eastwood attended together back in the ’80s.
(Lordy, not the erotic blindfolded food-tasting scene! Not that!)
The film had a few promising angles Morgan and Eastwood could’ve developed if they hadn’t both sunk into too-rich-to-care torpor and said the hell with it. For example, George is supposed to be a huge Charles Dickens fan: he has the author’s portrait on the wall and he’s always listening to his books on tape, finding some sort of specific escape from the torments of ESP in Dickens’ novels. As it happens, I’m a big reader of Dickens myself, so I was all over this. But it just sort of dribbles along pointlessly.
Eventually George goes to London where he tours Dickens’ house and sees a familiar picture called Dickens’ Dream, showing the author in his study with a cloud of his characters billowing out of his head. And this is clearly supposed to resonate somehow with George’s headful of psychic visions of his clients’ dead relatives who tell him all about his clients’ inner lives, and possibly also with Frenchy Frenchwoman’s afterlife vision of human figures standing around in a bright white limbo. Okay.
But what the link is, exactly, might’ve been a lot of trouble for the filmmakers to clarify. So they didn’t. You’re free to ponder this and other sketchy points, though, on the ride home.
Finally George goes to a reading of Little Dorrit by actor Derek Jacobi at the book fair, and he really likes the reading. He even gets a signed copy of the CD. And he meets up with the other main characters. And uh…well, that’s about two hours’ worth of film by then, so it ends.
Take a gander at the accompanying photos for a good sense of the film’s energy level. I especially like the one showing Clint Eastwood slumped in his director’s chair looking eighty years old, which he is. Retirement party, anyone?
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