No Matter Which Way You Go, No Matter Which Way You Stay, You're Out of My Mind
Hereafter really is more ghost than ghost story, a flimsy insubstantial bit of ephemera that glides in, lingers for a bit, making you feel gloomy and depressed, and then flitters away. It starts with ghoulish demise, and simply refuses to go away, confused about whether it’s actually fantasy, a love story, or some sort of bold statement about the afterlife. It’s resplendent with repressed supernaturality, like a ghost who’s trying to boldly declare his existence from behind a locked closet door. Clint Eastwood lends nothing to the project outside of his name, so really the onus is on Peter Morgan’s screenplay. With three disparate stories that get clumsily looped together like a toddler accidentally tying both sneakers to each other and dialogue that’s more ghastly than anything in this year’s horror offerings, it’s virtually impossible to believe that this came from the same pen that crafted The Queen and Frost/Nixon — aside from the Eurocentric setting. Morgan must have had some horrifying near-death experience that he’s trying to therapeutically expunge with this screenplay. It would have benefited from a director who gave a shit (even Morgan himself perhaps), a total excision of the American cast and storyline, and a more focused resolution. Because of the pedigree involved, don’t be shocked if this haunts the Oscar noms, because people simply don’t watch all the far superior independent fare, but this should have stayed buried. This will do for eschatology what Crash did for racism.
Morgan’s screenplay deals with three seemingly unconnected story threads, which when they finally do eventually merge do so with such clumsiness, you desperate wish Winston Zedmore had taken a proton-accelerator to the entire operation. It’s only fair that the individual stories are separated and sampled like the Neapolitan-ice cream package storyline it represents. Some of the actors are able to completely surpass their cliched and incredibly dry material, while others simply crash and burn in each scene. I apologize for what may seem like a ton of spoilers, but honestly, there’s nothing to spoil, as nothing really of any sort of merit happens in the film. If you’d rather go watch the movie instead, feel free to skip to the end of the review, right off the Pajiba website, and over to US Weekly where you belong. They might have pictures of puppies in purses! Assholes.
The film opens with a French newscaster Marie LeLay (Cecile De France, High Tension) and her producer on vacation in the tropics. As she goes out to buy gifts for his children, a tsunami waves strikes the coastline. It’s the best scene in the entire film, even if the CGI looks like something Brad Bird fucked around with when he was in high school. Marie drowns and dies, and sees an ethereal plane full of the shadowy outlines of what are presumably ghosts. She’s brought back from death, and becomes so deeply affected it begins to pervade her professional and personal life. So much so that she’s prompted to use her Velma like investigative reporter skills to go to one person and use all of their research to write a book. De France turns in the strongest performance in the film, despite all the lame tropes leveled at her by the script.
Meanwhile, in London, we’ve got a pair of precocious tween twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George MacLaren). Their segment plays like Charles Dickens take on Precious. They band together to get schoolwork done and take care of their junkie mother, using elaborate trickery to fool Child Protective Services (or whatever it’s actually called in Britain). While en route to the chemist’s to get his mother’s detox medication, one of the twins is harassed by some local toughs and runs out into the street where he’s hit by a truck — while on the phone with his twin brother. Now, alone and orphaned since his mother has to go to rehab from the trauma, the surviving twin tries to research the afterlife to talk to the brother he misses. Hey, Morgan, you got a little Haggis on you there, son. The MacLaren boys do a fine job looking Highmore-ishly adorable and putting on the sad and skeptical faces necessary for the role.
Then we’ve got our American segment, the tainted vanilla of the batch. George Lonergan (Matt Damon) is a reluctant psychic, able to touch people’s hands and communicate with the other world — the one Marie LeLay saw. He doesn’t want to do that anymore, despite the constant pestering of his brother Billy (the fat thing that hollowed out Jay Mohr and now wears his skin) to start making money at it again. George just wants to have a normal life, which prompts him to take night classes on Italian cooking with Carlo (Steve Schirrpa, Bobby Bacala from The Sopranos). There he meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) and tries to spark a relationship, but how can he when his touch causes psychic powers. Oh my God, why am I still typing this and reliving it?
I’m gonna use a fresh paragraph to heap my disdain on this particular portion of the film. Obviously, George is the lynch pin for the two stories — a boy who wants to commune with his dead brother and the French reporter keen on learning about the afterlife — but it feels the most unnecessary. Why he had to be American seems ridiculous. Had they made him some kind of European, even Irish, it would have worked. Personally, I would have liked to see someone like Cillian Murphy or Colin Farrell in the role. It’s not that Damon’s not good, it’s that the story is so bad. They saved all the bad acting for Bryce Dallas Howard, who is cinematic poison ivy. At first, you kind of try to ignore her, but then she gets under your skin, and you start itching and burning like crazy. Plus, what drives George to tie all the stories together is so slapdash, you want to retroactively take away Morgan’s Oscar nominations.
Hereafter clearly states there is some kind of afterlife and we are too cowardly to understand that. Which would have been a stronger message had Morgan not infused his screenplay with nothing resembling a concrete resolution. The strangest thing is that in Morgan’s version of the Hereafter, we seem to spend all of eternity standing around in the Dianetics commercial background waiting for Matt Damon to touch someone. No one smiles, no one does anything. It’s kind of nihilistic, like death leads us to a giant storm-cloud filled waiting room. But even that I could have forgiven, if Morgan didn’t take what was clearly a European, perhaps French-inspired, film and give it a rosy little Hollywood “happily ever after” ending.
I can almost guarantee Hereafter will make bank at the box office because they are basically marketing it as a “Clint Eastwood Film” starring “Matt Damon.” When it’s actually neither. It’s a melange of depressing storylines with the rare nugget of baleful humor like someone who put fruit in a Jell-O mold. It’ll reach out to folks on the far side of middle age, because they’re getting close to that Hereafter age themselves. But it just feels like an incomplete film, sanded down and marketed to all holy hell to get Oscar nods and ticket purchases. If there is a hell, this will be playing on the flatscreen in the waiting room.
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