It’s strange to think that the famously adamantine Clint Eastwood should be so easy to brush off nowadays. But somehow his movies have become overwhelmingly wishy-washy.
Fitting then that a tsunami should incite the action of Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” a blundering and archly “Babel”-esque melodrama about three people from different countries whose brushes with mortality bring them together. Not only does that deadly wave propel the plot by giving one character, the French journalist played by Cécile de France, a reluctant peek at what lies beyond; it also establishes the movie’s overall vibe, by leaving everything sodden and blasted. Perhaps we should be thankful that Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan (most recently of “The Damned United”) had enough restraint not to show us whatever faraway butterfly wing-flutter brought it on in the first place.
Instead they give us the journalist trying to cope by framing a memoir of her personal calamity with research on an alleged religious conspiracy to repress its spiritual portent. (Maybe it’ll sell in America, she’s told.) But that’s not the half of it. More like a third. There’s also a sweet English schoolboy (George McLaren), growing up much too fast, grieving his own recent loss and cycling through YouTube clips in search of an afterlife-attuned psychic he can trust. That would be, you guessed it, the noble burden wearer Matt Damon, a sad-sack clairvoyant living alone in the shadows of a glum San Francisco walk-up, dodging the invasive ESP jolts that rattle his soul whenever he touches someone and summons their departed, demanding loved ones. And as the movie goes through its tedious motions setting up the other characters and getting them all together — nearly every scene takes too long to get to a point we’ve already gathered — it seems mostly to want to be about the call of Damon’s duty. Fair enough: He’s been popping corn like this at least since “Good Will Hunting.”
Here he passes his days punching a clock at some obscure out-of-town factory, while his brother, a puffy and affable Jay Mohr, urges re-merchandising that psychic ability as the family business it once was — before Damon burned out and tritely declared it not a gift but a curse. “It ruins any chance I have at a normal life,” he says. “I feel like a freak.” Indeed, like some sullen adolescent “X-Men” mutant or Christopher Walken in “The Dead Zone,” he must always wear gloves or avoid physical contact. He must endure the embarrassing contrivance of a cooking-class courtship with a pretty and peculiarly desperate woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who throws herself at him and then is repelled by the harrowing revelation his supernatural insight allows. He must subdue his conscience and shut his door in the faces of the needy.
Again mostly for reasons of plot propulsion, Damon’s character is a Dickens fan, and there is something stirring in the radiant humility with which he finds himself (along with the journalist and the schoolboy) at the London Book Fair, seeking an autograph from book-on-tape maestro Derek Jacobi. It’s more or less the same righteous swoon — the accepted privilege to stand among great historical figures, as filtered through great actors — that he sparked with Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela in the previous Eastwood film, “Invictus.” Maybe it’s best to read “Hereafter” as a parable about the crowded-world challenge a certain kind of movie star, or director, faces when getting older and trying to keep his virtue alive. At least wishy-washy is better than all washed up.