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.
It might seem sort of specious to claim that someone who keeps as high a profile as Damon has lately been underappreciated, but it's not too far from the truth. It's been a little while since a vehicle of his has made a big splash at the box office; the actor, though, has of late been especially fantastic, very quietly turning in a handful of great performances in the last year alone—and in a rather startling range of films.
Steven Soderbergh's tonally slippery The Informant!, Invictus, and the Iraq-war thriller Green Zone all made very good use of the actor's trademark all-American wholesomeness (though Invictus offered the slight revision of an all-South African wholesomeness). It's hard to imagine these stories of the recent past with any other actor standing in for Damon, relying as heavily as they do on his unique brand of no-nonsense naivete—even when, as in The Informant!, that aw-shucks-ness masks something more sinister.
Hereafter is not as successful a film as the underrated Green Zone, or even Invictus, but it's another impressive instance of Damon making the most out of a rather thankless role. Hopefully his unassuming good work won't go unnoticed in the wave of bad reviews on the horizon.