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Friday, Sept. 17, 2010
Fish out of water? More like Gaul out of Gauloises
By KAORI SHOJI
You can take the boy out of France but you can't take France . . . You know how it goes. In "Afterwards," French heartthrob Romain Duris ("The Beat that My Heart Skipped") plays workaholic Manhattan attorney Nathan, and though this should be a celebratory vehicle that marks his jump across the Atlantic to perform in a major-English language production, he and the role just don't gel. Duris looks altogether too French, too effortlessly skinny, too used to the 35-hour work week to pull off the high-powered lawyer ambience.
When Nathan says he hasn't slept in weeks (because of his tremendous workload, of course) and how his personal life has been destroyed, you just want to laugh and tell him to quit kidding around. Nathan has "Gallic" imprinted on his forehead, and the only thing that could cause him to lose his rest plus a personal relationship is a new, more demanding relationship. When he's sitting there in a tailored suit with an open laptop, the frame feels like something out of a "What's wrong with this picture?" quiz. As far as "Afterwards" is concerned, everything.
"Afterwards" is based on French best-seller "Et Apres . . . " by Guillaume Musso and directed by French filmmaker Gilles Bourdos, but apart from Duris, the main cast is all-American — and big names too, including John Malkovich and Evangeline Lilly from TV's "Lost."
Perhaps that accounts for the feeling of disjointedness, an unexpressed streak of misunderstandings. Even Malkovich looks uncharacteristically uncomfortable, emanating a slight sense of helplessness. Sometimes you catch him looking like he can't wait to go home. As for Duris, he tries mightily to be the work-and-income-obsessed American, but what he really needs is a pair of skinny jeans, a packet of Gauloises and a glass of wine. Get this man to a cafe quick, before he hyperventilates.
All this keeps running through the head because, truth be told, the film doesn't engage as much as you'd expect of its high-caliber cast and crew. "Afterwards" starts off promising mystery and thrills but ends up delivering some pretty tired life lessons, which you can get just as easily from reading bumper stickers or a copy of "The Happiness Project." What it amounts to is that stuff about valuing each day as if it were the last, because it could very well be. Uh-huh.
Nathan apparently knows this better than most, since he had a near-death experience (a gruesome car accident) at the age of 8, but "came back" from it for reasons he refused to disclose at the time. Now in his 30s, Nathan has just been divorced from Claire (Lilly), leaving him stranded in a secret sea of misery because she really is the love of his life.
Outwardly he continues to function as a total professional, and shows some ruthlessness in dealing with the case of a Haitian father who lost nine of his family members in a plane crash. And then the enigmatic Dr. Kay (Malkovich) walks into his office and offers him a chance to change his life — while there's still time to do so. The doctor explains suavely that he can "see" when people are about to depart from the land of the living, and informs Nathan that his time has come, 25 years after the accident that came razor-edge close to ending his life.
Despite boasting a name cast, "Afterwards" didn't get much of a billing when it was released in the West in 2008 and, by all accounts, Duris returned straight to France as soon as the last scene was shot. Lilly went on to star in the Oscar winner "The Hurt Locker." Little seen and little commented on, the film makes it to Japanese shores two years after its release and, honestly speaking, it isn't exactly worth the wait. But you'll see Malkovich in a rare moment of ineffectiveness — and much more cadaverous than the people he claims are on the brink of death.
Dr. Kay's first name is Joseph (as in Josef K. of Franz Kafka's "The Trial") — but in a story so wrapped up in the afterworld, there's only an occasional allusion to the metaphysical. On the other hand, Malkovich's mere presence — resembling a marathon runner who never remembers to hydrate — is a constant, niggling reminder of mortality and the frailty of life. No wonder Nathan treats him like a major crimp in his Gallic evening.