Death Warmed Over

Romance is alive . . . oh, and dead

If you're a character in a movie, and the rain is coming down so heavily that you cannot see out your car's windshield, for the love of God, don't drive! Mack-truck drivers interpret such conditions as carte blanche to be reckless and will assume that honking their horn provides ample warning before plowing into you, 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. But you know those San Franciscans -- always with the weird feng-shui stuff, or the sculptures of naked butts uncomfortably placed in one's field of vision. So David can't find a "normal" place, until a flier literally slaps him in the face, and he soon finds himself on a nice couch drinking beers and watching sports, because men do that sometimes.

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, re-materializing at inopportune times -- the script endlessly milks the joke of his "seeing someone new." So David calls in an exorcist, Chinese medicine specialists, even Ghostbusters (the film's DreamWorks-Spielberg connection allows for the use of the actual 1984 movie theme music, though alas, no Bill Murray or any other original cast members). 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, Darryl 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 still works.

Unfortunately, the movie fails to fully make 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 hardly explained, except for some perfunctory claptrap about soulmates and destiny. In Freaky Friday, Waters at least gave us a magic fortune cookie; here, there's no equivalent.

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? And why does David reject the come-ons of a drop-dead gorgeous and sexually aggressive neighbor downstairs (Ivana Milicevic) in favor of the nagging phantom he can't even touch? Yes, the neighbor lady is lacking in intellect, but that wouldn't stop most guys.

Waters, it could be said, has launched acting careers with his previous films: Freddie Prinze Jr. in The House of Yes (thanks so much, Mark), Lindsay Lohan in Freaky Friday, and Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls. Ruffalo and Witherspoon don't really need the boost, but if there's anyone who'll benefit here, it's Waters' own wife Dina, playing Elizabeth's neurotic sister. Nepotism normally grates, but Dina proves adept at physical and emotional comedy, deftly blocking the assaults of her character's children while sympathetically and amusingly portraying a grieving sibling.

Given 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. And let's take a shot at the soundtrack too: Bad covers of the titular Cure song and Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," among others, seem like cheap shortcuts. If you can afford the Ghostbusters music, go the whole nine yards.

 
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