Witherspoon Comedy Aims for "Heaven," Falls Short
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2005 16 Sep
Release Date: September 16, 2005
Rating: PG-13 (sexual content)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Run Time: 101 minutes
Director: Mark Waters
Actors: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Donal Logue, Dina Waters, Ben Shenkman
Reese Witherspoon’s magnetic star-power in the new romantic comedy, “Just Like Heaven,” can’t overcome the movie’s fundamental, fatal flaw: a basic lack of chemistry between the film’s two lead performers. Although mildly entertaining – even uproariously funny in two scenes – the film takes far too long to generate the expected romantic sparks.
“Just Like Heaven” opens with great promise before stagnation sets in. Witherspoon plays Elizabeth Masterson, a doctor whose efforts to establish a social life outside of work are cut short by a car accident. Soon thereafter, Elizabeth surprises David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) in his apartment, claiming it as her own while coming to grips with the reality that she’s a roaming spirit, no longer confined to a body.
It’s here that the movie runs aground, as the two characters try to establish Elizabeth’s earthly identity, and the whereabouts of her physical body. David, a heavy drinker, tries to dismiss Elizabeth’s appearances as alcohol-fueled hallucinations, but Elizabeth’s persistence and other-worldly powers convince David that he’s dealing with a force beyond his control, leading him to an occult bookstore, where he learns various techniques on how to expel Elizabeth from his dwelling.
These scenes are played for laughs, and although they’re successful in spots, they go over the line at other points (a parody of “The Exorcist” has a priest echo that film’s famous line, “The power of Christ compels you!” only to set up a punch line involving holy water). At one point, a desperate David, hoping to purge Elizabeth’s presence completely, commands her to “walk toward the light” and “rest in peace.”
But Elizabeth confides in David that “there is no light.” Turns out she’s not dead but soon might be, setting up a race against time to locate Elizabeth’s comatose body and preserve her life.
The film’s venture into social commentary brings with it surprisingly life-affirming results, as Elizabeth realizes she no longer holds to her earlier stated wishes about termination of life support. Surprisingly, the movie manages to grow lighter on its feet while addressing these weighty life-or-death issues, as David attempts to save Elizabeth from the consequences of her earlier beliefs. Along the way, a romance finally blooms, and we can’t help but root for the two main characters to find happiness with each other.
This being a Hollywood romantic comedy, it’s a foregone conclusion that the movie will wrap up happily – it’s only a question of how that will happen. “Just Like Heaven” does a nice job of tying together earlier plot strands and delivering the expected fairy-tale ending. Yet that payoff, long in coming, may not be enough for viewers whose patience is tested by earlier stretches of the movie, or for those who find its main sources of humor – alcohol and the occult – nothing to laugh about.
AUDIENCE: Teens and adults
- Drugs/Alcohol: Pervasive alcohol use; Ruffalo’s character says he had “a little buzz” before admitting he was “wasted”; he drinks vodka while performing impromptu medical surgery; another character says “God gave us alcohol as a social lubricant … to make women loose”; Witherspoon’s character associates margarita consumption with having fun.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name is taken is vain; “ass”; “hell”; one character uses “righteous!” as a humorous synonym for “cool”; Witherspoon fears she may have been a “slut”; exclamation of “Oh, s---!”
- Sex/Nudity: A hospital patient’s backside is exposed; a neighbor aggressively comes on to Ruffalo’s character, eventually disrobing in front of him and inviting him into a bedroom; an embarrassing wedding incident is used as a form of emotional blackmail, although this is played for laughs; David and Elizabeth lie in bed together, believing it to be their last night with each other.
- Violence: A car accident; A surgical scene, although it’s played for laughs; a young girl briefly turns off a life-support machine; quality-of-life issues repeatedly discussed as related to a patient in a coma; a doctor is punched in the face
- Spiritual Realm: A supporting character works at an “Occult & Metaphysical Bookstore,” where he “reads” customers’ auras and suggests books that offer instruction in séances and other occult practices. He says he has a “gift” he never asked for. More broadly, the storyline about a woman’s spirit roaming around her apartment and appearing to another character may be objectionable to some viewers; Several ghost jokes; Witherspoon’s spirit walks through walls, falls out of a window, enters into her own body and into the bodies of others; a doctor recommends disconnecting life support from a comatose patient, saying it’s “sometimes easier to ask God’s forgiveness than to prolong the inevitable.”