By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
As a director Clint Eastwood is a terrific storyteller, capable of breathing new life into dusty movie conventions like underdog athletes, aging gunslingers and patriotic war stories.
What Eastwood apparently can't do is conjure a story out of thin, ethereal air.
Hereafter is unlike any movie Eastwood has attempted, and there's something admirable about an 80-year-old filmmaker trying something different. Just not this different, this far outside his comfort zone (and ours). It's another yarn about strangers around the world linked by shattering events — Babel comes to mind and quickly disappears — ending with the solemn conclusion that we're all in this life together, and the afterlife, too.
The hub of this slowly spinning drama is George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a blue-collar San Franciscan who gave up what appears to have been a lucrative career as a psychic. George has the gift, which he redefines as a curse every chance he gets. His brother (Jay Mohr) pushes him to revive the business, but George refuses. Whatever turned George away from his supernatural calling is a detail that screenwriter Peter Morgan declines to explore.
Halfway around the globe in Indonesia, a TV journalist named Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) awakens with her producer/lover and goes shopping. The excursion is interrupted by a tsunami wave wiping out the city and nearly drowning Marie. During her ordeal she has visions of shadowy figures in fractured lighting. Nearly dying changes everything about her personality and career.
Meanwhile, twin brothers Marcus and Jason (roles shared by Frankie and George McLaren) shield their heroin-addicted mother from social workers who'll take them away. One brother's sudden death leaves the other to complete Eastwood's mortality trifecta: George knows death, Marie experiences it, and Marcus struggles with its grief.
The laws of coincidence will eventually bring these disparate people together. But to what end? Hereafter lays out possibilities of what happens when we die in tidy monologues, then shrugs its shoulders to admit that no one knows for sure.
It would be simple to peg Hereafter as Eastwood contemplating his own mortality. It certainly contains the random thoughts that would be freely associated in such matters. But we don't expect a philosopher Clint at the movies, and he doesn't seem comfortable with that job himself. Why a tsunami, for example? Because it offers a bracing image to sell in previews, since Hereafter is little else but talk.
The performances can't be faulted, hampered as they are by Morgan's didactic screenplay. Yet outside the core trinity, the characters are simple conveniences; Bryce Dallas Howard flirts to show George's inability to connect with people, Jay Mohr displays the greedy potential of George's gift, and Marthe Keller is an atheist professor while the movie skips any other theological stance.
Yet judging by sniffles overheard at a screening, Hereafter may allow viewers to project their feelings onto the screen, providing somber solace for personal grief. That doesn't erase the disappointment that Hereafter doesn't feel like a Clint Eastwood film; it's more like a very special edition of John Edward's psychic TV show.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.