Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hereafter: Too much here, too little after

Hereafter (2010) • View trailer for Hereafter
Three stars (out of five) • Rated PG-13 for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.21.10

Heartfelt attempts to deal with the afterlife, and with contacting the dead, are a risky proposition on the big screen.

Marcus (alternately twins George and Frankie McLaren) wants his
 mother (Lyndsey Marshal) to kick her drug and alcohol addictions,
but she simply isn't strong enough. With the threat of a foster
home just one social worker visit away, the boy becomes
increasingly frantic. 
Too much sentiment, no matter how well-intentioned, and the effort collapses: definitely the fate of 1998's adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel, What Dreams May Come, also undone by one of Robin Williams' too-earnest performances.

Douglas Trumbull's Brainstorm, back in 1983, foundered beneath too much gadget-laden techno-babble. 1980's thoughtful Resurrection, while not exactly an afterlife story, skirted the subject's edges with enough intelligence to raise intriguing questions.

Director Peter Jackson's recent adaptation of The Lovely Bones got lost in the needlessly ostentatious afterlife landscape inhabited by the dead young girl who tried to watch over her family from beyond; the resulting storyline, coupled with a truly unacceptable conclusion, got lost in the visual excess.

All this said, I've no doubt that such films can comfort viewers predisposed to believe in the power of devotion, as a means to retain a link to loved ones who've moved beyond our mortal realm. Patrons of a more cynical bent, alternatively, are likely to scoff and raise eyebrows.

Our world, these days, seems inhabited by far more of the latter.

Which is one reason I expect Hereafter, written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon and The Queen), to break director Clint Eastwood's impressive string of critical and popular hits. Although Eastwood often has focused on painfully emotional and often poignant subjects in dramas such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, he's been careful to avoid the excess sentimentality with which this new film is awash. Indeed, Hereafter nearly drowns in mawkishness, much the way one of its three central characters nearly drowns in the film's first act.

But tone isn't the sole problem here. Hereafter simply isn't satisfying as a story; its various character-driven interludes  a few of them quite powerful on their own  don't add up to a fulfilling whole. This is surprising, given Morgan's involvement; he's deservedly well respected, and I expected a better narrative build.

More crucially, the payoff  the final scene that sends us all out of the theater  is ridiculously overblown.

Eastwood has been quite shrewd, during his long career, about waiting to do certain material until he was ready to embrace the challenge; he sat on Unforgiven for years, until he felt mature enough to make such a strong, deconstructive statement about the classic Hollywood western.

It's therefore tempting to regard Hereafter as Eastwood's effort to deal with his own mortality: a reasonable assumption, given a man who recently turned 80, but not necessarily a satisfying experience for the rest of us.

And Morgan, the press notes inform us, wrote this screenplay shortly after having lost a dear friend in an accident. This suggests an absence of perspective, and that, too, may contribute to this film's unsatisfying tone.

Hereafter devotes the bulk of its two hours-plus to three unconnected storylines involving Marie (Cecile de France), a French journalist on vacation at an Indonesian beach town with her TV news producer/lover, Didier (Thierry Neuvic); London adolescent twins Marcus and Jason (George and Frankie McLaren), who struggle to "manage" their drug-addicted mother while holding off social services workers determined to intervene; and George (Matt Damon), a quietly hermitic blue-collar worker in San Francisco, doing his best to flee a far more visible previous career as a psychic.

Eastwood cross-cuts between these three sagas, and each begins with such deceptive calm that we can't help being nervous, and anticipating danger.

Indeed, our fears are justified; Marie is caught in a freak tsunami and comes close enough to death to sense ... something ... out there. The experience changes her.


The tsunami sequence, it should be mentioned, is absolutely riveting: impeccably staged for maximum dramatic impact, and wholly believable. More than a few patrons at Monday's preview screening reacted audibly as poor Marie was buffeted by waves and currents she couldn't begin to escape.

Marcus, in London, suffers a fate worse than death, as any twin would attest; this changes him, as well, and certainly not for the better.

George, meanwhile, is prodded by his mildly smarmy brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), to "read" a work buddy who recently lost his wife. It turns out that George's talent is genuine; he truly can communicate with the dead by making brief physical contact with a "client." But George long ago realized that his gift is a curse, and that people don't always want to know the things they hear; he therefore turned his back on a successful  and lucrative  career, much to Billy's dismay.

Billy, clearly a hustler, wants George to get back on the pony. George, preferring to be alone with his own thoughts, retreats to a lonely apartment and listens to Charles Dickens audio novels.

But George isn't prepared to cut himself completely off from humanity; he therefore enrolls in a cooking class, where he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), a transplanted Midwesterner clearly looking for a new "special guy" in her life.

The evolving dynamic here, as George and Melanie draw closer, is charming. Damon and Howard persuasively convey the tentative anxiety of two lonely people reaching out to each other, and Eastwood sets up these scenes masterfully. One cooking class assignment is enchantingly sweet, as each couple feeds unidentified bits of food to the blindfolded partner, as an exercise to sharpen taste buds.

The bond depicted between Marcus and Jason is similarly captivating, and strongly enhanced by the naturalistic performances by the McLaren twins ... neither of whom had any previous acting experience. Both boys play both roles, to add to the sense that they're two halves of a whole. Clearly, they're naturals; we become firmly invested in Marcus and Jason's fate, and in their desperate efforts to preserve their splintering family.

Marie's saga is less satisfying. De France doesn't "connect" with anybody to the same degree as George and Marcus; Neuvic's Didier never rises above the level of two-dimensional cipher (and stereotypical French horndog). Although coincidence and caprice inform much of this film, Marie's actions feel random and quite contrived, especially for somebody we're repeatedly told is a seasoned journalist (we never see any evidence of this).

She seeks out the first afterlife researcher whose name pops up via an Internet search, although it's unlikely that she'd immediately find somebody genuinely respectable ... particularly when young Marcus, doing the same in London, encounters nothing but a string of laughable and despicable charlatans (pretty much the only montage played for laughs in this unrelentingly bleak and unhappy movie).

Then, too, Marie simply isn't very interesting, as a character.

We understand, given the requirements of cinema, that George, Marie and Marcus are destined to meet somehow, and that their storylines eventually will intersect. This film demands some sort of resolution, and we do get one ... but your degree of satisfaction will depend greatly on your willingness to go where Morgan's script drags us. Because make no mistake: The modest climax  almost an anti-climax  is pretty thin gruel after such a lengthy and ponderous buildup.

I didn't buy it, and not because of an unwillingness to embrace the lofty central concept. I don't need to be convinced about this notion of an afterlife, but I do need to be convinced by Morgan's narrative ... and I wasn't.

Yes, of course it's a nice, comforting thought. But that doesn't automatically translate into good drama.

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