1. There are three stories in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” and we’d argue, when you add up the coherent and well-considered aspects of each, that ends up totaling about three-quarters of an actual story, spanning a rather endless 130 minutes. We meet three people. In Paris, Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) is a television journalist who is so close to being killed in the tsunami that opens the film that she briefly goes over to “the other side.” In San Francisco, George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a psychic who can make “connections” between the dead and the living but has retired because it’s too emotionally taxing. And in London, a boy named Marcus watches his twin brother killed in a car accident — the twins are played by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren — and spends his days in a haunted limbo, desperate for his brother, on whom he was dependent, to give him some sign of how he’s supposed to go on. Each of these characters have potential. What do you do with knowledge you obtained while legally dead, knowledge it’s possible you might have imagined? What do you do if you have the ability to speak with the dead but don’t want it? What do you do if your life partner, the person who not only knows you better than anyone but in a way actually is you, leaves you alone to navigate the world? How these lost people’s lives intersect with each other, all in a way trying to solve the same mystery, could be the foundation for a musing and/or investigation of death, of loss, of coping with the great darkness beyond. But you’d have to put a lot more thought into it than Clint Eastwood is willing to.
2. Eastwood doesn’t have much interest in any of these characters or even, oddly, death. LeLay’s near-fatal experience doesn’t inspire her to re-evaluate her life — much hay is made of losing her job and her boyfriend to a younger, prettier newscaster, in an entirely pointless subplot — or bring her to some sort of realization. Instead, she writes a lengthy book about “what’s in the afterlife” that’s never explained well, either in subject or motivation. (Eastwood doesn’t even bother to tell us what the book’s about.) All we know about her is that she almost died, in the film’s opening tsunami that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t have showcase particularly impressive CGI. (It suffers from the same “pixellated computer people being washed away” that “Titanic”‘s dated effects have today.) What exactly are we supposed to feel about LeLay? That her life before the tsunami was empty and trifling? All right, then why are we supposed to feel bad for her when she loses it? By the end of the film, her “quest” ultimately comes down, bizarrely, to “meeting a nice guy,” and you’ll wonder why we’ve been spending so much time in the first place.
3. Damon’s Lonegan character has the same problem. Why Damon is able to speak with the dead isn’t well established — it involves some sort of surgery mishap when he was a kid, we think? — and we never find out precisely why he quit the psychic racket in the first place. (We keep waiting for some sort of tragic incident that never comes. It’s like Eastwood forgot to tell us.) Damon stumbles through the film looking morose but never particularly agonized. He argues with his brother about going back into the psychic business, he has a doomed, extraneous flirtation with a lonely girl (Bryce Dallas Howard, playing no one in particular) from his cooking class, he has an obsession with Charles Dickens in a personality detail that has no connection to anything we’ve learned about him. (Essentially, it’s just an excuse to get him to London at the end of the movie.) It’s a curiously dull performance; Damon just sort of lurches around, looking sad, with a metaphysical gift/curse that the film never considers in any serious sense. You’ll keep waiting around for someone to go, “Holy shit, this guy can speak with the dead! That’s amazing! Why are you so bummed out? No, really, why?”
4. The one character that nearly works is Marcus’, a dead-eyed child who bears more than a passing resemblance to the quiz-show boy genius of “Magnolia.” The twins’ backstory is nicely set up, with the two boys leaning on each other and complementing each other to offset an addict, ineffectual mother, and when Marcus’ brother dies, we feel the hurt in less-cheap fashion than a dead-kid scene might imply. Marcus’ sadness follows him to a foster home, and he goes searching for any way to communicate with his brother, rifling through a series of charlatans and fakes. Eventually he finds George, who can actually talk to the dead, and … well, they sort of just talk. The meeting of the lapsed psychic and the boy is meant to serve as the climax of the film, when these two needy people find solace in each other, but their scene just sort of sits there without any real urgency. George tells Marcus that his brother wants him to move on, that he can’t protect him anymore, and that’s pretty much it. You keep waiting for a catharsis that never comes. You wonder what these two people are supposed to mean to one another. You’re left flummoxed as to what this is supposed to be all about.
5. Clint Eastwood has reached the point in his filmmaking life that every film he makes is taken as some sort of meta-commentary on his career. This is causing people to add subtext and context that, frankly, just isn’t there. This is a film about death, so it goes, because Eastwood is aging and, uh, shot a bunch of people in his old movies? There’s nothing happening in this movie: Just three characters walking around, contemplating death, meeting each other and talking for no specific reason. The whole movie’s just limp; it feels rushed and half-baked, with whole plotlines introduced and then dropped with no explanation. The metaphysical aspect of the film is never dealt with in any logical way, the relationships between the characters are forced and slack, and the nods to Real Life are empty and borderline offensive. (At one point, Marcus is nearly killed in a terrorist bombing, but the movie never stops to comment on the fact that someone just bombed the subway. It just plods right along to the next scene.) Much has been made of Peter Morgan’s befuddlement that Eastwood just starting filming his unfinished screenplay without his knowing, but we shouldn’t be surprised. This is how Eastwood has made his films for a while now — in a hurry, and in time for everyone to get home for dinner. This is fine if you are riffing on a persona, or you have a tight script that doesn’t need much futzing. But that’s not what’s happening here. “Hereafter” is missing meat, gristle and connecting tissue. It lies around for a while, not unpleasantly, raises some intriguing ideas and then does nothing with them. When Woody Allen does this, he’s called lazy and unfocused. When Clint Eastwood does it, he’s simply being laconic and matter-of-fact. But we’re sorry: This movie isn’t about anything. This emperor is wearing no clothes.