Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2010

Life support

Eastwood and Damon's earnest efforts can't breathe life into Peter Morgan's screenplay

Hereafter
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Peter Morgan
Starring: Matt Damon, Cécile de France, Frankie McLaren, George McLaren, Jay Mohr, Bryce Dallas Howard, Thierry Neuvic and Richard Kind
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 9 minutes
Opened October 22, 2010
(out of four)

Peter Morgan screenplays epitomize why utter mediocrity is worse than just plain crap. Just plain crap can be easily written off as exactly that. In fact, crap can be fascinating in its pure crappiness, or in its ambitions or intentions or its unique failings.

But mediocrity. Oh, mediocrity is a sneaky little beast. It doesn't have the courage to fail. It takes no chances; it offers nothing new; it just sits there, behaving nicely and accomplishing nothing. And worst of all, it often presents the illusion of quality. (Or, to steal an old Pauline Kael phrase, you could say it "reeks of quality.")

This is the kind of mediocrity Morgan specializes in. His scripts are exceedingly competent, structurally sound . . . and utterly devoid of interest. They hit all the necessary dramatic cues that the story requires, but of course without bothering to make any of the drama interesting. From The Queen to Frost/Nixon to Longford to The Other Boleyn Girl and now Hereafter, this has been the case with Morgan. Stately scripts, stately films, that nonetheless aren't nearly as fascinating as they should be. Their scripts lack any real drive - any life. (Is it too much to ask for a little energy?)

To be fair, the success of any film goes far, far beyond the quality of its screenplay. But nonetheless Morgan's work exemplifies the kind of competent yet sterile and unimaginative films too often mistaken for something greater. They are, in a word, mechanical - they feel as though they've been written by a computer program. If he were taking a college screenwriting class on structure and formula, he would get an A. But structure and formula can't make up for impersonal, shallow writing. No risk, no reward. On their own, his scripts provoke no visceral reaction from me whatsoever - nor any intellectual curiosity. He's shallow across the board. To put it another way, he writes TV movies that somehow manage to get mistaken for something else.

Hereafter takes place in three countries, telling three stories that will inevitably connect at some point. The first centers on a former professional psychic named George (Matt Damon), who has shunned his "gift" because it prevents him from leading a normal life.

The second focuses on a reporter, Marie LeLay (Cécile de France), who has a profound near-death experience and tries to write about it, only to find resistance from a scientific and literary community all too wary about broaching a subject as sensitive as what happens after we die.

The third story is about a 12-year-old British boy who loses his twin brother in a car accident and tries to find a way to communicate with him beyond the grave.

All of that is potentially potent material - in some cases even controversial - but instead of an in-depth examination of any of it, we get a superficial once-over. At the admitted risk of harping on a subject, nothing Morgan writes about seems to mean very much to him. Director Clint Eastwood is more invested in the material in Hereafter, but only marginally. The most intriguing of the three stories is that of Damon - not because of the psychic element (which is treated with kid gloves) but because it's the only one of the three that seems like something of a character study. The other two stories attempt the same thing, but get bogged down in the mechanical hum of their (lifeless) narratives.

The story of the psychic, however, is less encumbered by story and a bit more interested in George's internal crisis over what he should - or even can - do with his life. Worthy of particular attention are the scenes between Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays a woman George meets in a cooking class. The gentle way Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern position the two characters as they build a rapport, and finally see their understanding of one another change rapidly, makes powerful moments out of what otherwise may have felt dramatically inert, or forced.

It's unfortunate that, for one reason or another, the same kind of care wasn't paid to the rest of the film. Why does Marie's supposedly life-changing experience feel so rote, so prosaic? Why doesn't it feel like anything's actually at stake? And if this character is delving deep into touchy subject matter, why doesn't the film have the courage to do the same? Well, it's because Hereafter really isn't about any of the things it thinks it's about. All of that is just window dressing. It's not that anything is especially bad about the movie - it's fine. Just fine. And it's content being just fine. Inoffensive. Benign.

Which is what makes it, upon reflection, somewhat maddening. After all, if a film doesn't even have the conviction to follow through on its own material, what, in the end, does it matter? What Hereafter was lacking wasn't an idea, or a story, or a cast, or a director - what it really needed was some balls.

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