ZERO STARS/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Donal Logue, Dina Waters
screenplay by Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon, based on the novel If Only It Were True by Marc Levy
directed by Mark Waters
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I'm reminded of another magic-realist romantic comedy named after a song: Emile Ardolino's sweet, all-but-forgotten Chances Are, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the reincarnate of a man killed en route to meeting his sweetie Cybill Shepherd. He falls in love with Shepherd's daughter Mary Stuart Masterson, then falls back in love with Shepherd. This is a circuitous, distressingly disinteresting route towards expressing that Mark Waters's Just Like Heaven is not only a movie I really hate, but also a movie that's been done so many times before that instead of needing to follow along with the rigid requirements of the picture, you have time to comb the memory banks for obscure films that are better variations on this theme. (Stuff like Ghost, natch, but even relentlessly creepy garbage like Return to Me (also titled after a song) or Heart Condition or Always--or Truly, Madly, Deeply or The Bishop's Wife. Or the pinnacles of the ghost-love genre, Laura and Rebecca.) Just the fact that it turns The Cure's titular tune into a big sloppy glob of Lilith Fair saliva is enough to turn this child of the '80s right off, sure, but Just Like Heaven is also exactly the kind of piss that uses pop songs to narrate the action.
Like "I Put a Spell On You" and "Witchy Woman" for when heartthrob-by-proxy David (Mark Ruffalo) goes into an occult bookstore to meet his secondary alleged comedic sidekick, Darryl ("Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder")--his primary alleged comedic sidekick being the also-unfunny Donal Logue; or The Cars "Good Times Roll" when David's inevitable soul-mate Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) wins a desired promotion. Weird, then, that during its fake orgasm of a conclusion, Waters settles on Rolfe Kent's icky score, which, at that totally unsurprising moment, sounds suspiciously like the music from E.T.. And why not, as Just Like Heaven is also about the adoption of a lovable, super-competent alien with wide-set eyes by a resource-less (until the end), WASPy kid before the medical establishment menaces both. Elizabeth is a go-getter medico, see, who sacrifices her personal life for her job, and David is a couch-ridden layabout mourning the untimely death of his sainted wife. Elizabeth's spunky and perky and spends all of her time during the film's prologue strutting around like a neo-Tracy Flick, fighting off letches, medicating punks, and setting up a perfunctory subplot wherein a villain (Ben Shenkman) is actually introduced in a film that simply doesn't need one--especially once Elizabeth gets smeared by a truck. Thereafter, she appears as an apparition to lovelorn David as "Just My Imagination" trails cotton candy across the soundtrack.
Neither does it need an anti-euthanasia subtext that has the ghost of Elizabeth (more an astral projection, I guess, tarted up as some kind of Christian knob polish) standing next to her comatose body and pleading with her dizzy sister (Dina Waters) not to unplug her. Not neo-con enough? Fear not, as there's also the whole thing about David falling in love with Elizabeth without being able to touch her (she's mostly at the whim of Ghost's physics), but as she apparently can possess David in an All of Me fashion, this should have led, and would have in a more imaginative film, to a tender lovemaking session involving David and his other hand. (Something that's at least hinted at by the cropping up of a sugared-up version of "Brass in Pocket" during its non-sex bed-sharing scene--but why doesn't she just fall right through the bed?) Too, it should have led to a scene where Elizabeth, instead of talking David through an improvised surgery, possesses him to do it herself.
But who cares, am I right? Just Like Heaven is more of a checklist than a movie, anyway, and people who go to it on purpose will tick off the things they want to see as the film, like Chaplin's auto-feeding marvel, provides sustenance with machine indifference. No real emotions, no real characters--the journey Elizabeth takes from denial to acceptance occurs in an eyeblink, mainly I suspect because they ran out of jokes for her not knowing she's a ghost and decided to move on to the jokes that involve her knowing it. They hate each other, then they love each other; they say things like "You weren't the dead one, I was! And, and you resurrected me!" before pausing in mid-maudlin to give folks time to fish out their hankies; they do broad slapstick like falling off modern furniture and the ol' racing through a hospital with a corpse on a gurney gag; and they can't just love one another, they have to be meant for one another. It's so good at touching all the bases that you feel like applauding it, like cheering it on as it sketches a mean caricature of an upstairs neighbour (Ivana Milicevic) whose only purpose is to provide Elizabeth with a nymphomaniac bimbo target to scorn. And, of course, you feel like smiling in gentle parental approval at the Waters's trademark cheap shot at Asians--later referred to as "the Joy Luck Club"--as a group of Chinese women panic when they set off a fire alarm while trying to exorcise David's apartment. Better than magic fortune cookies? Yeah, whatever. Just Like Heaven is just awful. It's gonna do great business. Originally published: September 16, 2005.
by Bill Chambers DreamWorks presents Just Like Heaven on DVD in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer* that, some early problems with oversaturation aside (in the prologue, Reese Witherspoon's complexion is so rosy as to negate her character's fatigued state), is a credit to the format. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is modest in the manner of romantic comedies; Rolfe Kent's score occasionally trickles into the rears but the discretes are otherwise rarely engaged outside of Elizabeth's subwoofer-driven glide down a corridor to her hospital room. Still, the temperature of the sound is warm and inviting. On another track, director Mark Waters hoards the mike in a feature-length commentary with editor Bruce Green and DP Daryn Okada, not that the three have much to say about anything other than the film's authentic San Francisco locations. Interesting to learn that Waters knew Mark Ruffalo from their starving-artist days and that Ruffalo even auditioned for an unnamed role in Waters's The House of Yes, but don't come knocking if you're looking for some discussion of the film's post-Terry Schiavo topicality.
Under Special Features, find "The Making of Just Like Heaven" (15 mins.) and its wholly redundant sister "Meet the Cast" (13 mins.). Both are chirpy and promotionally-oriented, with producer Walter F. Parkes giving us the hard sell on Waters and Ruffalo, in particular. Parkes and wife/producing partner Laurie MacDonald trumpet the merits of Marc Levy's French-language source novel apparently without having read it while Witherspoon's identification with the material seems to grow more disingenuous as her soundbites accumulate. She also pretends she wasn't in Overnight Delivery (as the rest of us do) by claiming this to be her first time working so closely with one actor. Ruffalo--heir apparent to, if anyone, Montgomery Clift--is the victim of hyperbolic comparisons to Jim Carrey, Cary Grant, and Spencer Tracy, but the quote that completes Parkes's transformation into Don King is his assessment of Jon Heder: "He's extremely subtle as an actor." (Trying to reconcile "subtle" with "the guy who played Napoleon Dynamite" made me feel like Robert Klein on that mid-'80s episode of "The Twilight Zone" where cat suddenly means dog.) A 5-minute gag reel that inexplicably dissolves into a weepy montage before the end, four deleted scenes--including an alternate ending that flirts with greatness despite being tossed off for the filmmakers' own amusement--with optional Waters commentary (see Reese fly in a moment stupid enough that you can't believe he didn't realize it before the test-screening cards came back), and previews for Prime, Pride & Prejudice, and Something New round out the disc. Originally published: February 6, 2006.