Monday, November 1, 2010
(left, official poster for Hereafter with Cecille de France and Matt Damon; below, Damon with Bryce Dallas Howard)
Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, Hereafter, is sentimental, touching, predictable, slyly manipulative, and a bit slow.
One of the most reliable tricks in the romance genre is to have the two romantic leads -- whom we just know are going to end up together -- lead separate lives, and keep them apart for a long time. Each will have a romantic red herring who has some disqualifying trait which causes us to root against them ending up with the lead. By the time the two leads finally meet, a moment the audience has veritably been lusting for for the previous hour, there doesn't need to be a lot of interplay. The mere fact they've finally met makes romance seem inevitable, and the movie can end happily at that point. Nora Ephron used this technique to good effect in Sleepless in Seattle.
The twist in Hereafter is that there are three lives and threads for us to follow: the two romantic leads (played by Matt Damon and Cecille de France) and a little boy.
The third lead is a 12-year old Cockney boy. He is supposed to tug at our heartstrings, and he does. The boy has a twin brother, and both try nobly to save their heroin addict mother. How are we not supposed to be affected when one of the twins is killed while returning from the pharmacist after filling a prescription for a methadone-like substance for their mother? That's not even playing fair.
Cecille de France plays a French television journalist who wonders about her near death experience when she is caught in the Indonesian tsunami. Her romantic red herring is her producer, who seems okay at first but turns out to be a tad too slick.
Matt Damon's red herring is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of famous director Ron Howard. Her character is just aggressive and off-kilter enough to make us root against her ending up with Damon. Surprisingly, by Hollywood offspring standards, Howard is quite attractive, in fact more so than de France. This violates yet another Hollywood rule, that the hero must end up with the best-looking woman in the movie. (Quick, name the last movie in which the hero ends up with the less attractive female.)
Damon plays a reluctant psychic. Imagine for a moment what other actors might have done with that part. Jack Nicholson would have gone into convulsions playing the psychic, while making every dead person sound unpleasantly unrepentant. Tom Cruise would have acted as if contacting the dead were a matter of extreme, sweaty intensity -- but would always have emerged afterward with his winning grin intact and a thumbs up sign. Damon, who let himself lapse back into his natural chubbiness for the role, plays the psychic the right way -- abashedly. There are no histrionics, only a semi-apologetic explanation for his gift, or, as he sees it, curse. And while conveying messages from the dead he comes across as a slightly absent-minded guy who is trying to remember something hovering on the edge of his consciousness.
Most of us willingly suspend our disbelief for this kind of movie, which is essentially science fiction. But the characters should remain true to themselves, and there was one false note. Damon's character, George Lonegan, has a personality that is nothing but painfully raw, brutal honesty throughout the first three-quarters of the movie. But towards the end, when the little Cockney boy tells Damon where he can find Cecille de France, Damon suddenly acts like a flustered and embarrassed junior high school student and strenuously denies that he likes her. Silly.
And yes, it is The Man With No Name, the director of Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima who helmed this movie. But don't expect Dirty Harry-style action. The pacing is slow, too much so at times.
Verdict: the movie underscores how great both Eastwood and Damon are, partly because it shows their versatility, but that's not quite enough to make it a great movie. Still worth seeing though, especially if you've always wanted to believe in life after death.
As we were leaving the theater I pointed out to my family that there actually have been numerous reports of people who've had near death experiences, whose hearts had actually briefly stopped beating, and who saw a strange luminous light at the moment of their "death."
My son, who is a huge fan of Eastwood's more action-oriented films, retorted, "Well I almost died of boredom during that movie, and I didn't see any light. I mean, my heart didn't actually stop, but I think it came pretty close. And I didn't see anything like that."