by Mel Valentin
"Just Like Heaven," a romantic comedy/fantasy/drama directed by Mark Waters ("Mean Girls," "Freaky Friday") and based on a novel, "If Only It Were True" by Marc Levy, marks the first onscreen pairing of Reese Witherspoon ("Election," "Legally Blonde") and Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count on Me," "We Don’t Live Here Anymore") as a romantic couple separated by the metaphysical barrier between life and death. Despite a dubious plot turn or two (particularly in the third act) and the socially conservative subtext that lies at the core of the romantic comedy genre (i.e., all roads lead or should lead to heterosexual monogamy), "Just Like Heaven" manages to provide audiences with a modicum of lightweight, sentimental entertainment.Elizabeth Martinson (Reese Witherspoon), a young, career-obsessed physician works at a San Francisco hospital. At the hospital, Elizabeth listens with detached interest and trepidation at her co-workers’ stories about their domestic lives. One, a fellow doctor, is married, but her husband is pressuring her to get pregnant. Another, a nurse, wearily devotes her non-work time on her children. A third, Elizabeth’s mentor, Fran (Rosalind Chao), has recently gone through a divorce. Elizabeth’s married sister, Abby (Dina Spybey), continually expresses concerns about Elizabeth’s love life. To that end, she cajoles Elizabeth into accepting a blind date. Almost simultaneously, Elizabeth’s career aspirations are fulfilled: she’s obtained the coveted attending physician slot at the hospital. All this, of course, is prelude to the car accident that sets the metaphysical plot into motion.
"Saved from its predictable, familiar storyline by its charismatic leads."
Enter David Abbot (Mark Ruffalo), a dejected, slightly disheveled former landscape architect looking to sublet a fully furnished apartment in San Francisco. After several failed attempts, a fortuitous coincidence leads him to Elizabeth’s apartment. Immediately comfortable (especially with the all-important couch), David settles in for a night of lonely drinking and TV-watching. In walks Elizabeth, angry with the usurper making a mess in her tidy apartment. David responds with incredulity, assuming that Elizabeth is an emotionally troubled and confused young woman. There’s one catch: Elizabeth can walk through objects, including walls. In addition, Elizabeth seems to be suffering from amnesia.
David seeks the help of an old friend and psychologist, Jack Houriskey (Donal Logue), who counsels David to moderate his drinking and to start socializing. With Elizabeth refusing to leave him alone (even after David suggests she’s dead and should move on), David wanders into an occult bookstore. There, with the help of a book clerk with paranormal abilities, Darryl (Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite), David researches the afterlife, settling on exorcising Elizabeth’s spirit from his apartment and his life (to semi-hilarious results). Alas, poor David is frustrated at every turn, ultimately deciding that the solution lies in discovering who Elizabeth was and how he can help her move on.
Just Like Heaven is first and foremost a romantic comedy, meaning that Elizabeth and David’s early distaste for each other will eventually turn into romantic love, with one major caveat: due to Elizabeth’s lack of a corporeal body, David and Elizabeth can’t consummate their love for each other, making it in one sense, “pure.” As such, the barrier separating David and Elizabeth is part of the romantic comedy formula. Romantic comedies follow a fairly predictable formula, from initial antagonism to romantic affection and love, with a series of complications postponing the final clinch and kiss. The metaphysical barrier here is only one of many writers have chosen over time to separate lovers in romantic comedies (or romantic tragedies). Culture, race, class, gender, age, education, familial barriers all exist to be torn down by the power of romantic love (which endures at least through the closing credits).
Although Just Like Heaven offers a strong, driven female lead, a doctor, it also uses and extends romantic comedy conventions, that romantic love, monogamy, marriage, and family are, in all instances, primary and career, no matter how selfless, is always secondary. Just Like Heaven does little to hide this subtext, given Elizabeth’s early encounter with her co-workers and her character arc, which eventually awakens her to romantic possibility and love with David. But to argue against the subtext found in romantic comedies is to betray a certain cynicism. Simply put, the sunny optimism that’s part and parcel of the genre is what continually draws audiences of all ages (even those of us who should know better) to this particular genre.
Which leads us back to where we began, to the leads, Reese Witherspoon (whose made a successful career out of plucky, energetic, determined heroines) and Mark Ruffalo (whose dramatic roles portraying emotionally damaged men serve him well here). Witherspoon and Ruffalo acquit themselves well, playing toward their strengths as actors and performers. More importantly, they share an onscreen chemistry, which in turn is aided by a solid, occasionally witty script by Peter Tolan (Analyze This) and Leslie Dixon (Freaky Friday). The script has several deficiencies, including the predictable, familiar storyline, the aforementioned third-act plot turn, and in underutilizing Donal Logue's character, Jack. Jack provides a subversive, vulgar (and funny, of course) counterpoint to the romantic storyline. Perhaps most egregiously, Just Like Heaven relies on overused pop songs early in the film to set the mood and tone. Luckily, director smartly Mark Waters turns down the volume in the second half and resorts to a conventional, less obtrusive musical score.As a side note, "Just Like Heaven" will likely to remind audiences of Jerry Zucker’s "Ghost" (without the murder mystery/thriller subplot), M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" (with a central character initial aware of his or her metaphysical state) and going further back in time, Warren Beatty’s "Heaven Can Wait" (in a third act plot complication that endangers the final hook up between the central characters) and, for a select few, one of most remarkable romantic fantasies put on film, Michael Powell’s underseen "A Matter of Life and Death" (sadly, it’s not available on DVD in the United States). Viewers who find "Just Like Heaven" a thoroughly entertaining experience should rent or purchase "A Matter of Life and Death" when and if it returns to American shores.
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originally posted: 11/24/05 13:55:28