MELISSA BLOCK, host:
For most of his career as an actor, Clint Eastwood has been pretty predictable: strong, often heroic, but always with a dark side. As a filmmaker, he's been anything but predictable. Just in the last ten years, Eastwood has made a somber murder mystery, a female boxing film, and a pair of ambitious World War II pictures. He followed those with a kidnapping drama, a film about racism in Detroit, and another about Nelson Mandela and South African rugby.
Well, as different as those movies are, Bob Mondello says that none of them sets you up for Eastwood's latest effort: "Hereafter."
BOB MONDELLO: The first seven minutes of "Hereafter," will knock your ears back. A huge tidal wave the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 slams into a resort where a French journalist is shopping in a street market.
(Soundbite of waves)
MONDELLO: The town is reduced to splinters, and the journalist drowns. Gone. Lifeless. And then, long after some folks trying to revive her have given up, she coughs, sees soft-focus visions of blurry figures and bright lights, and miraculously comes back to life.
I wish I could say the same thing happens to the sober, heart-felt movie she's in. After that startling disaster-flick opening, "Hereafter" gets hit by a slow-motion tidal wave of afterlife hokum, and you can feel it slipping away, despite Eastwood's best efforts to keep it on life support. His biggest ally in that struggle is Matt Damon, playing an extremely unwilling psychic who keeps being approached by strangers who want him to do readings even on the staircase to his apartment.
(Soundbite from movie, "Hereafter")
Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (as George) I don't do readings anymore.
Unidentified Woman #1(Actor): (as character) You did one last week for Mr. Andrews.
Mr. DAMON: (as George) I know. Well he's an associate of my brother's. It was a one time thing. I don't
Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) Please, I'll go..
Mr. DAMON: (as George) I don't want you in
Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) Everything I have. I lost my only child. I just want to talk to her. Please, I want to talk to my baby.
Mr. DAMON: (as George) I - I can't help you. I don't do that - I don't do it anymore. Please.
MONDELLO: Damon's character is supposed to be the real deal. When he holds hands with someone, even for just a second, he can see any dead folks they happen to be grieving for. Understandably, he wears gloves where he can, but sometimes, there's just no avoiding holding hands say, with a gal he meets in cooking class.
(Soundbite from movie, "Hereafter")
Mr. DAMON: (as George) We never had this conversation.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (as character) Why?
Mr. DAMON: (as George) Because if we open the door and go down that road, any chance that we had of having something normal will just be gone. Knowing everything about someone... eh, it seems nice, but really, maybe it's - it's actually better to hold stuff back.
MONDELLO: He may not want to go there, but there are three plot threads in "Hereafter," and the folks in the other two really do. That French journalist who briefly drowned? She writes a book about a conspiracy to hide the afterlife. The surviving half of an adorable pair of identical twins? He goes to fake spiritualists to look for his dead brother.
And screenwriter Peter Morgan, who wrote hard-nosed scripts for "Frost/Nixon" and "The Last King of Scotland," he trips down a rabbit hole into sentimentality, not that Eastwood's filmmaking isn't as graceful and unhurried as ever. He's made this meditation on mortality stately and elegant sort of a "Babel" for the supernatural set. Beautifully shot globetrotting from Asia to California to Europe, performances that are earnest and low-key.
It's as if everyone figured they could keep Hereafter from turning ghost-story hokey by making it grounded and attractive, and matter-of-fact. And it sort of works. There are no inadvertent giggles here; it just doesn't add up to enough, after.
I'm Bob Mondello.