Judge Brendan Babish ain't afraid of no ghosts. At least not ones that look like Reese Witherspoon.
It's a wonderful afterlife.
When Just Like Heaven was released in the summer of 2005, Reese Witherspoon seemed to be positioning herself to steal the romantic comedy mantel from the suddenly reclusive Meg Ryan. Then came her powerful, Oscar-winning performance as June Carter Cash later that year in Walk the Line. Now, with its release on DVD, are revisionist movie critics going to rate Just Like Heaven as a movie unworthy of her talent?
Facts of the Case
David (Mark Ruffalo, 13 Going on 30) is a morose bachelor who thinks he has found the perfect apartment in which he can drink beer and sulk in seclusion. In the midst of a mid-day binge he is shocked to find himself suddenly scolded by Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon), a young woman who apparently materialized out of thin air to rebuke him for his slovenly habits. While David quickly realizes his new apartment is haunted, Elizabeth insists that she is not a spirit, and enlists David's help in figuring out why she can walk through walls. As the two traverse San Francisco in search of clues of Elizabeth's past, romantic feelings begin to blossom. But will David be able to have a fulfilling relationship with a transparent apparition that no one else can see?
Perhaps it's not fair to criticize romantic comedies for being overly cute and cloying. It seems like even the good ones have little more to offer than an hour and a half of gooey sentimentalism that bolsters us for some late night "snuggling." Of course there are the occasional romantic comedies that transcend the genre and achieve greatness in their own right, such as When Harry Met Sally… However, in the past decade most seem to settle for being passively entertaining instead of attempting to say anything of consequence. While Just Like Heaven has moments of originality and irreverence, it ultimately succumbs to the same boring, formulaic conventions that give romantic comedies a bad name.
The movie's biggest asset is its cast. Mark Ruffalo is probably the best male actor in Hollywood who seems happy to take the easy money that comes with romantic comedies (anyone who doubts his talent needs to see You Can Count on Me). Unlike most accomplished actors who appear in romantic comedies, Ruffalo does not skulk through his scenes or seem to be thinking of that dump truck of money they're getting to woo Jennifer Lopez (what was Ralph Fiennes doing in Maid in Manhattan anyway?). It is unfortunate that Ruffalo is wasting the prime of his career on roles that are flimsy and unchallenging. However, his talent still shines through and he adds depth to movies that often have it in short supply, as he does here.
Then there is Reese. Here, Witherspoon brings her irrepressible charm to enliven Elizabeth, an overworked doctor who is finishing up her residency at a San Francisco hospital. While Witherspoon's plucky performance if far from her finest work (in addition to Walk the Line this includes her hilarious turn in Election), she effortlessly redeems a character that is actually kind of a drag. With her endless nagging, Elizabeth succeeds in convincing David to use coasters, give up drinking, and not sleep with his comely downstairs neighbor. While this controlling behavior would put most women on the fast track to Dumpsville, Witherspoon makes it seem endearing. It is a huge testament to Witherspoon's talent that she is able to somehow make Elizabeth eminently likable.
A welcome surprise is the return of Jon Heder, who is almost unrecognizable without the flaming red mop top he sported in Napoleon Dynamite. Here Heder plays Darryl, a dopy spiritual medium who provides little plot advancement, but plenty of comic relief. Though the humor in Just Like Heaven is largely uneven, Heder's irreverent performance is wholly original and a welcome diversion from the staid action.
Despite the talent involved, Just Like Heaven is just too cloying to distinguish itself from its contemporaries. With such a talented cast, director Mark Walters (Freaky Friday) could, and should, have kept the movie's humor smart and subtle. Instead he employs tired gags, such as when Elizabeth inhabits David's body and forces him to spastically fight with himself. Then there are several times when David is talking to Elizabeth but is observed by others to be talking to himself. This is humor on par with a middling sitcom, and it only serves to undercut the dramatic heft of the movie.
With two superb actors in the leads, even a plot this outlandish can produce strangely powerful scenes. Unfortunately, Waters too often undermines the film's emotional resonance by employing annoying romantic comedy staples, such as the overly whimsical musical score and impossibly cute child actors. There are countless times in the movie where characters act in ways that are completely inexplicable until you realize that it was needed to advance the plot. The film's entire third act devolves into a wild caper consisting of idiotic acts by David that carelessly endanger his relationship with Elizabeth for absolutely no reason. Then there is the singular strangest moment in the film: a waiter trips and suddenly his chest is about to explode (this is also needed to advance the plot). I can only assume that Waters thought his film was too precious to be scrutinized for its inexplicable plot. It isn't.
DreamWorks has produced a DVD that is about as good as one could expect from a film as inconsequential as Just Like Heaven. The picture is clean and bright and the movie is a great showcase for the beautiful San Francisco locales. Strangely enough, though it isn't mentioned on the box, the DVD comes with a commentary track featuring director Mark Waters, cinematographer Daryn Okada and editor Bruce Green. Waters does the majority of the speaking, and primarily uses the commentary to praise the efforts of his crew and cast. Nothing earth shattering here, as one would expect. Among the handful of deleted scenes, the highlight is an alternate gag ending that actually trumps the film's real ending.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Truly, Madly, Deeply is a similarly themed, but far superior, movie from the early 1990s. In the film, which was directed by Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), Alan Rickman stars as a ghost who has come back to keep his grieving widow company. The movie is funny, but by exploring the premise in earnest manages to be profoundly moving, especially for a film about ghosts. Just Like Heaven never seems confident enough to ever take itself seriously, and as such is clearly suffers in comparison.
If a romantic film's intent is to merely provide an agreeable diversion for a couple hours, then Just Like Heaven is a success. I watched this movie with my fiancé and afterward we both agreed that the film was cheesy but amusing. So unless you are a curmudgeon who would rather take a date to The Sorrow and the Pity, Just Like Heaven is a pretty safe choice for a Saturday night.
Guilty of pandering to hopeless romantics and underutilizing a talented cast. Still, I'm going to release the film on its own recognizance because that Reese Witherspoon is just so darn cute.
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