Just Like Heaven
2005Director: Mark Waters
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, John Heder
he well-crafted, meaningful and genuinely funny romantic comedy is a rare and wonderful thing. In fact, of all genres, it is perhaps the most difficult to pull off on its own terms and arguably the most enjoyable and satisfying of cinematic experiences when it does work. Think of Hawks’ His Girl Friday or Wilder’s The Apartment and the way those films appeal to that part of us that longs for a tragic and romantic path to love. Just Like Heaven is in this league. It’s the best modern romantic comedy since Jerry Maguire. I was admittedly taken aback by this film. In fact, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it at all, but the pointedly optimistic, selfless and open-hearted nature of the film made for a winner from start to finish. It’s just so damn pleasing!
Much of this has to do with the pairing of Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon. For once the romantic comedy – so despoiled and abused in recent years—didn’t seem like the soulless vehicle it has for J-Lo or Julia Roberts, and it hasn’t been vainly tailor-made in this way. The script has a vitality all its own, from which a happy film slowly emerges. And happiness is a virtue not to be sniffed at for lacking in artistic merit. I’d take this modest film, which cheerily achieves what it sets out to do, over the morose and cynical pretensions of, say, 21 Grams. Neither film has much to say about the real world, so why not have a little fun? Ruffalo is purely fantastic as Abbott. Rather like Jack Lemmon, he moves well between the comic and the tragic, stumbling through his own ticks and private traps. There’s also a touch of James Stewart in his bumbling veil of confidence. His sceptical and uneasy character, who for most of the film deals with a grave personal tragedy, is brought to life by the optimistic neuroticism of Reese Witherspoon’s Elizabeth Masterson. Witherspoon has, in the past, been one of those actresses whom I’ve never made a point of seeking out. Why would I? She’s never made a film that’s interested me. Okay, she’s great in Election, but that seemed as if it was going to be an aberration in a career that would slowly somehow liquefy itself into a mixture of sugar and money (the kind of thing Tom Cruise drinks to keep himself amazing). But here, thrust before my eyes, she’s wonderful and alive. She seems limited to a particular type of character but—kind of like a female Michael J. Fox—she plays it well and true. The vibrant chemistry between the two actors is palpable and carries through, beyond the end credits.
The plot is a classic set-up: Abbott has recently lost his wife and moves to an old apartment to destroy himself with beer and TV. The ghost of a sprightly young doctor (who is actually still alive, in a coma) haunts him, begging for his help to reconnect her soul to her body. As in other only-you-can-see-me films like Ghost or Heart Condition, this premise makes for some funny moments, as when the camera reveals how bizarre the protagonist looks, talking or wrestling with themselves. Rufallo’s unlikely physical comedy is impressive and the scene where he struggles for a gulp of whisky—momentarily possessed by Witherspoon—may be predictable (like everything here) but it’s just done so well here.
And the film has edge, as all good comedy should; there’s something on the line. Particularly unsettling is the scene in which Ruffalo steals Witherspoon’s comatose body and her respirator is pulled out. This quickly shifts from a goofball chase to a moment of serious drama. The gear change is so violent that it doesn’t give you any time to wonder whether or not it works. The whole film clips along at this wicked lick. It’s an old fashioned and innocent way to tell a love story. It bears a passing resemblance to Groundhog Day, in that only some sort of karmic romance can rescue the characters from their predicament. The dramatic kiss with which the film ends is a testament to the well-plotted physical frustrations and narrative economy of the film. The big moment hits, washing over the edges of the film, like a wave of positive energy. The ethereal way in which they have been together but apart stirs an unusual and effective mixture of emotions. If you’ve got a beating heart, Just Like Heaven will make it flutter.