September 19, 2005

Just Like Heaven2 Stars

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Just Like Heaven tries to weave a tapestry of whimsy and drama, comedy and pathos, but instead creates a web of ridiculousness in which its heart gets trapped. It is there – we can see it pulsating – but the restraining tangle of oddities and absurdities prevents us from ever touching it. And it’s too bad, because an untapped source of genuine warmth and life force is imprisoned within the movie, and all that is left is a superficial shell.

Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon), a young, diligent doctor who works 26-hour shifts in a frenetic hospital in San Francisco. Her whizzing work schedule leaves little time for a social life, and as a result, her concerned big sister does what all concerned big sisters are best at: setting up dates. This could be the beginning of a new life for Elizabeth – well, that is until she is hit by a semi on her way over to her sister’s house.

Enter David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo), a lonely, alcoholic, slightly less-young man, who is searching for an apartment. He settles for a beautiful high-rise that overlooks the city of San Francisco. Here he drinks, watches his old wedding tapes (his wife has been dead for two years), and slides down the depression spiral. One night, a strange girl appears, claiming ownership of the apartment and insisting that he leaves. She tries to prove that she is the owner by showing him her pictures, but they are gone. She tries dialing the police, but her hand just swipes through the phone. They soon realize that she is a spirit, however her identity is unbeknownst to both.

The rest of the movie involves amusing ghostisms, typical of the genre, nods to Ghostbusters and The Exorcist, and funny bickering between the pair. Elizabeth enlists David to help her refresh her memory of her former life and to try to locate her body. It is apparent that the director (Mark Waters) and the actors are having fun, and indeed, so are we. We can see the romance forming, and the juxtaposition of the off-beat flirtation and whimsical music are charming and endearing.

Just Like Heaven has done a good job up to this point, but it forsakes its quirky, unique character for too many romantic comedy staples, specifically the bad ones. There’s the “Come on, man, let’s party!” best friend of the Ruffalo character, who exists only as a medium through which Ruffalo can relate his feelings to the audience. There’s the dumb, voluptuous next-door neighbor who tries to seduce David. Then there’s the oddball third leg to the storyline: a clairvoyant who acts as an adviser of the occult to David (and who is played annoyingly by Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame).

The script is not great: David, referring to Elizabeth’s dependence on medical tools, says at one point, “Machines don’t know everything,” and Elizabeth flatly responds, “My training tells me they do.” The denouement is unnecessarily and frustratingly extended. These flaws should not have made it through the writing process, let alone the editing room, and if the director insisted on incorporating all the traditional romantic comedy elements, he should have done so with originality and pizzaz.

Again, there are things to be admired in the film, and it will surely appeal to many. Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo are great in their respective roles, and so is most of the supporting cast. And although a cliche, the rooftop setting overlooking beautiful San Francisco strengthens the romantic milieu.

The movie owes more than a few elements to Ghost, some intentional and others not. But whereas Ghost managed to effectively incorporate comedy and remain dedicated to the drama, Just Like Heaven does just the opposite. There’s too much cuteness, not enough warmth, too much absurdness, and not enough substance. Just Like Heaven floats in the clouds leaving reality behind for far too long, and in the end, is just a ghost of a movie.

Archived article by Terry Fedigan
Sun Contributor