Film » Screens

Death Warmed Over

Romance is alive . . . and dead in Just Like Heaven.


If you're a character in a movie and the rain is coming down so heavily that you cannot see out of your car's windshield, for the love of God, don't drive! Truck drivers will assume that honking their horns provides ample warning before plowing into you and knocking you into a coma -- or maybe the afterlife.

Reese Witherspoon is the victim of such events in Just Like Heaven. Witherspoon, the press notes inform us, is "known for creating unforgettable characters," like, uh, the perky blonde in Legally Blonde, the perky blonde in Sweet Home Alabama, the perky blonde in Election . . . anyone remember the names of all those characters? The perky blonde doctor in this movie, for what it's worth, is named Elizabeth, and remarkably, she doesn't have a boyfriend.

She's on her way to meet a prospective blind date when the thing with the truck happens, and suddenly the movie starts telling us a new story, that of a widower named David (Mark Ruffalo) who wants nothing more than to rent a San Francisco apartment with a comfy couch. Eventually, a flier literally slaps him in the face, and soon after he finds himself on a nice couch, drinking beers and watching sports.

And then Elizabeth suddenly shows up to yell at him, claiming that it's her apartment. Only before David can debate the issue, she disappears, rematerializing at inopportune times -- the script endlessly milks the joke of him "seeing someone new." So David calls in an exorcist, Chinese medicine specialists -- even ghostbusters. Only when all those fail does he turn to Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder, sporting Beck's hairdo and running an "occult and metaphysical" bookstore. Napoleon, er, Daryl decides that Elizabeth's is the most alive spirit he's ever encountered and suggests that she may not really be dead.

Witherspoon and Ruffalo are likable actors, and director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls) and screenwriters Peter Tolan (Analyze This) and Leslie Dixon (also of Freaky Friday fame) manage to choreograph much amusing banter between the two. He's a slob, she's a nag, this is familiar; but it works.

Unfortunately, the movie fails to make complete sense, which may be because it's based on a French novel (If Only It Were True, by Marc Levy). The ultimate circumstances of Elizabeth's fate and their bearing on why David can see her when no one else can are barely explained, except for some perfunctory claptrap about soul mates and destiny.

That's not all: It is revealed, in the movie's major physical-comedy moment, that Elizabeth can possess David's body if she chooses. Why, then, in a scene where she must transfer her medical knowledge to David to save a man's life, does she not simply jump into his body again and do the deed herself, rather than awkwardly talking him through it?

In light of the positive crowd response to Just Like Heaven, it's hard to beat up on it too much, but it's the least of Waters' films, and the ending is painfully drawn out in a way that hurts the overall impact.

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