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Why do so many older critics love 'Hereafter' while younger reviewers can't stand it?

October 20, 2010 |  4:13 pm

Clint
For a director who's known for a studied lack of sensationalism, Clint Eastwood is sure riling up a lot of people.

Eastwood's new movie "Hereafter" opened last weekend in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto, where it grossed a very strong $36,000 per screen. It will play across the country beginning this weekend. But where this unassuming spiritual drama should be doing what many movies aimed at grown-ups do -- get a finite number of people to quietly come out to see the film -- something more polarizing is happening. Eastwood, who at 80 epitomizes Hollywood restraint and politesse, is causing a ruckus.

"Hereafter" examines three geographically separate but thematically related characters, all of whom have some connection to death and the afterlife. There's a working-class London boy who has tragically lost his twin brother and wants desperately to communicate with him. There's a reluctant San Francisco psychic (Matt Damon) who would like nothing more than to stop communing with the dead. And there's a Parisian woman obsessed with what comes next after she goes through a near-death experience in the 2005 Asian tsunami.

Hereaft Eastwood's new film, it quickly becomes clear, is a bold examination of spiritual concerns that the movie business is typically too scared or too secular to explore.

Or wait, it's a warmed-over exercise in Hollywood cliche and pseudo-spirituality.

As the movie stands on the threshold between hit and disappointment (and awards contender and Oscar also-ran), critics are sharply divided. But they're not just divided in the usual way. They're divided, it seems, along generational lines.

Here's how it breaks down: Many younger reviewers -- those in their 30s and 40s, and maybe inching into their early 50s -- are coming down hard on the movie. Most of the older generation? They're  finding much to embrace in the movie.

The list of prominent naysayers reads like a who's-who of prominent younger critics: the New York Post's Kyle Smith, New York Magazine's David Edelstein, Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek, The Onion's Nathan Rabin, Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf and Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. We could spend a whole post on their diatribes, but here is Rothkopf, channeling many of his contemporaries: "Hereafter" is "an undercooked slice of paranormal mumbo jumbo.... What was Clint thinking?"

Or Smith: "Clint Eastwood's 'Hereafter' brings together recent historical events, including a European terrorist attack, plus Charles Dickens and the after life without having anything to say about any of these topics. The movie drags, yet it feels like it's missing an hour."

An older generation of reviewers, meanwhile, might as well have been seeing a different movie. There's my colleague Kenneth Turan, and Time Magazine's Richard Corliss, the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers and the New York Observer's Rex Reed, among others.

“What's surprising and satisfying about this film is its determination to deal with unconventional material in a classical way,” writes Turan, who calls Eastwood's effort “gripping” and “haunting.” Or Corliss' summation: "For Eastwood, and viewers in synch with his mature, melancholy worldview, the hereafter is now."

Sure, there's the occasional younger critic, like A.O. Scott, who finds something to like about "Hereafter," or an older one, like Joe Morgenstern, firmly in the nay camp. But as a rule, one's reaction to the film says as much about their age as a driver's license.

It's a confounding divide. The simple explanation, I suppose, is that a movie preoccupied with mortality will appeal more to older filmgoers than younger ones. But young people think about mortality too. And it's a disservice to older critics to say they'd like a movie just because it grapples with the subject of death.

I do wonder, though, if the reaction speaks to what different generations may want from a movie about mortality. "Hereafter" doesn't make much of a specific argument for what the afterlife is, but it does assure viewers of one thing: that it exists, something that might not speak as strongly to a (less mortality-minded) younger audience.  What a younger filmgoer might actually is a more complex and elaborate set of afterlife possibilities, an intellectual exploration as much as an emotional one, and Eastwood doesn't offer that.

It's a theory, anyway.

Hollywood movies that tackle life after death -- from "The Sixth Sense" to "Heaven Can Wait" -- tend to offer a reassuring worldview. No matter what we do in this life, they say, we'll still be hanging around in the next one, observing those we cared about and maybe righting some wrongs along the way. Eastwood doesn't go for that easy out. But he doesn't offer much of an alternative, either. Whether you like this might depend a little bit on how you feel about the filmmaker -- or, as it turns out, when you were born.

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Top, Clint Eastwood. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times. Bottom: "Hereafter" poster. Credit: Warner Bros.



 
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