Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" is something that his past three works really weren't: interesting, at least a bit. In portions, it's still pretty tedious, but it definitely has some allure. That's definitely an advancement for Eastwood, who made some of his worst films with "Changeling," "Gran Torino," and "Invictus" (his best, a word that should be used lightly, since "Letters From Iwo Jima," but also his most mundane). This new one at times rivals all of them in its badness, but at other points it propels itself above. It raises some actual questions, intentionally or not. And it manages to prevent the viewer from feeling incredibly annoyed, which, considering the mistakes that Eastwood makes here, is worth something.
The film has a monotonous structure: it's divided into 3 sections, which cycle back and forth in the same order, using so many establishing shots it feels like a sitcom. Eastwood somehow makes this feel strangely comforting (evidence of his small degree of magic), but there are definitely better ways to do this. One example I believe would be Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Amores Perros," which isn't entirely successful but pretty close with its more segmented approach.
(POSSIBLE SPOILER: One thing that must be said: "Hereafter" seems to rip one of its strands right out of "Perros," that of Marie LeLay, who mirrors many traits of Inarritu's Valeria (Goya Toledo). The bit with the posters I think takes it one step too far.)
Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) is a French newscaster who is on vacation. She's having an affair with her producer Didier (Thierry Neuvic), and, as she goes to get souvenirs for HIS kids, disaster strikes. It's Sumatra, and this is that tsunami you heard about. Can you say ripped-from-the-headlines (screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also wrote "The Queen," can, also including the London subway bombings in a not-so-pivotal scene)? Marie tries to save a girl who she was buying a necklace from, but she cannot, as she is struck by a floating car. She dies, or gets especially close to dying, because she can see the next world in snippets. She survives the incident, but is completely shaken. She may seem fine, but it's only a matter of time before it consumes her and she's writing one of those crazy manuscripts, to the chagrin of a publisher who wanted her to write about an influential French politician.
Across the pond in San Francisco, we cut to George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a true psychic being bothered by his money-hungry brother (Jay Mohr, who's flat-out awful) to do readings (viewers in the know will catch Richard Kind of "A Serious Man" as one of the people he does give a reading to). Lonegan is a person who has Character Traits: he absolutely loves Charles Dickens (who had epilepsy, a fact that the movie is quietly referencing) and he's taking an Italian cooking class. He has a mildly interesting backstory beyond that, but it's sad that even someone as reputable as Morgan still fashions characters like this. Lonegan does at one point have an embarrassingly obvious and extremely labored Meet Cute at the cooking class with Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard, terrible), and that doesn't end well. I was surprised that Eastwood and Morgan showed some restraint in not bringing her back at the end of the film. (They actually do something worse, but let's give them a hand while we can.)
We go back to Europe to complete our cycle: Jason and Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren, who each play both of them) are twin brothers living with the sort of irresponsible alcoholic mother that often populates sad British films. Child care knows about this, and they come to break it all up. The twins manage to stave them off, until a couple of deus ex machinas strike (SPOILER: Jason gets hit by a truck and dies) and the mother is carted off to an institution. Marcus, the "quiet one," falls into the foster system, given to a couple who he has absolutely no warmth for. He wanders off looking for psychics to connect him to his brother. This is shown in a well-done montage satirizing the fakers in the "after-death" industry and perhaps the whole business altogether.
I speak with perhaps a little too much harshness. "Hereafter" in some ways is special, and that should be recognized. But still, it's too formulaic and has too many pitfalls to be worth a recommendation. C