Warner Bros. Pictures
Clint Eastwood's Hereafter closed out the New York Film Festival last night, capping the two-week-long event with a piece of unreconstructed Hollywood schmaltz. Of course, Eastwood is a living legend, so it's no particular mystery why his latest slow and stately drama was selected as the festival's final gala affair. But it was nonetheless jarring to see a film so flat (and flat-footed) closing out this annual world-cinema showcase. (The ruminative supernatural film opens in limited release on Friday before expanding the following week.)
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Hereafter, directed by Eastwood from a script by British scribe Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), brings together three afterlife-focused storylines—the film hops from Paris to London to San Francisco—in a we-are-all-connected coincidence-heavy fashion that evokes recent films like Babel and Crash. Eastwood's film opens with a CGI-tsunami bang, but it thankfully doesn't grandstand at the volume of those other sprawling dramas. The scenes in which Matt Damon, who stars as a reluctant medium in the San Francisco thread of the story, dons an apron for a night-school cooking class perhaps best sum up Hereafter's appealing lack of pretension and its clumsy execution. A boisterous Italian chef works the room with canned lines while Damon slices tomatoes and flirts tentatively with his kitchen partner, played by a bubbly Bryce Dallas Howard. These moments feel lifted from some long-lost sitcom pilot.
At this point it seems unlikely, despite Eastwood's stellar awards track record (even for some of his less-than-stellar films), that Hereafter will gain much traction in this year's Oscar race. But if this film is to be recognized for anything, it should be for its lead performance by Damon, who got a surprise supporting-actor nomination last year for his memorable rugby-captain turn in Eastwood's otherwise plodding Invictus. In Hereafter Damon somehow manages to make his preposterous character, George Lonegan—a man who sees his ability to commune with the spirit world as a curse rather than a blessing, thus retiring from the lucrative medium business to drive a forklift at a factory and spend his lonely evenings listening to Charles Dickens audiobooks (he also has a framed portrait of the author hanging in his apartment)—believably human. The actor's workmanlike demeanor saves at least the hushed communicating-with-the-dead scenes from becoming overly sentimental, and it's hard to imagine any other actor convincingly selling the Dickens fanboyishness with such earnest enthusiasm.