Jean-François Tremblay :
“Just Like Heaven” is of the opinion that love conquers all, including the frontier between our world and the afterlife. From my understanding, it also takes the position that if you really believe something happened, then it’s no longer just a dream and it becomes reality. Your own private reality, if you will. If I had a lower tolerance for the many whimsical forms love can take at the movies, I would dismiss its story as pure schmaltz, and there’s a fair deal of that for sure. But the leads, played by the winning combo of Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, give such appealing performances in a tale that threatens to derail into lovey-dovey fluff that you end up liking the film anyway. To a degree.
As romantic comedies go, it’s a gentle enough ride helmed with competence by “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls” director Mark Waters. Gentle, that is, except for a couple of occasions including the opening scenes where San Francisco medical resident Elizabeth (Witherspoon), quite the busy little bee, is on the tail end of a 26-hour shift, no less. In this overdone opening sequence, she basically does everything but mop the floors and work at the cafeteria, although for all I know she might have done that too. For Elizabeth, work is everything. So much so, in fact, that the perils of a workaholic lifestyle become a secondary theme given more importance than the handling of a social issue that recently made headlines in the United States, which I’ll touch upon a bit later. Elizabeth is soon told by one of those authoritative-looking doctors that she’s earned a coveted attending physician job, but also that for now what she really needs to do is go home and get some quality sleep. But fate strikes on the way there, in the form of a major crash with a transport truck, sending her into a deep coma.
Meanwhile, landscape architect David (Ruffalo), looking for an apartment, chooses this elegant and cozy pad with a great view. His chips & beer-sustained moping/stagnancy/grief (his wife died two years before) is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Elizabeth’s spirit. She doesn’t know she’s in a coma or even what happened to her, believes this is still her apartment and sees David as a messy intruder. He’s the only one who can see and hear her and he wonders if he’s going insane. They bicker a lot at first, which allows for some humorous repartee. David wants her gone and ends up going to some alternative bookstore run by Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) playing a middling character with psychic abilities. Side note about a breach of the movie’s internal logic: if Elizabeth’s ghost condition prevents her from grabbing a phone, how come she can twist David’s body in crazy ways at a bar and actually push him out of the place?
Eventually the feelings between the bickering pair turn to affection as they retrace who Elizabeth was and what her life was like. This plays out in a series of scenes brilliantly underplayed by Witherspoon, especially, who conveys her character’s plight and longing with subtle changes in her facial expressions. Supporting characters, however, are perfunctory, notably Elizabeth’s sister Abby (Dina Waters), who has to decide whether or not to sign the papers stopping the artificial prolonging of her sister’s life. Those looking for a substantial examination of this issue after the Terri Schiavo case are no doubt ill-advised in looking at Hollywood to provide it. I’ll trust the audience to make what they want of what happens. There are easy conclusions to be drawn, but how valid they are when framed by the formula of American romantic comedy is something to keep in mind as well.
“Just Like Heaven” is the adaptation of a Marc Levy novel called If Only It Were True, and screenwriters Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon have noticeably reworked the material, which is not really a bad thing since the book is incorrigibly mushy. They’ve also added a revelation late in the story that’s kind of cute and clever, yet the movie as a whole is little more than cinematic comfort food. It may be unfair to expect otherwise, but at the same time the best and most memorable love stories rise to a level this film only floats around. I’ll end with this, people: there’s a moment where we can hear a few bars of the “Ghostbusters” theme. One thing’s for sure: if they can look as good as Reese Witherspoon does, then I ain’t afraid of no ghosts either.
Aww, Reese. Gotta love the Reese. She’s so funny and sweet, she’s got such a bright smile and sparkling eyes… Love her. The movie doesn’t need to spend a lot of time introducing her as overworked Dr. Elizabeth Anderson. 5 minutes and a montage and we already buy her as a dedicated, wonderful young professional whose whole life is her work, then WHAMMY! Her car is rammed into by a truck while she’s driving home from a 26 hour shift.
Cut to Mark Ruffalo, giving good deadpan and pathos as David Abbott, a landscape architect who spends his night listening to Beck, watching TV and drinking beer alone – ooh, I can relate to that (well, not the landscape architect part). His sad, lonely life is shaken up when he discovers that Elizabeth, the former tenant of the San Francisco apartment he’s subletting, is still living there, but he’s the only one who can see her. Is he going nuts? Is she a ghost? I’ll let you find out for yourself.
Based on Marc Levy’s best-selling novel Et si c’était vrai…, “Just Like Heaven” is part romantic fantasy (“City of Angels” meets “Ghost”), part supernatural comedy (sort of a gentler “Beetlejuice”). It makes for a pleasant watch, despite uninspired patchwork direction and a screenplay that indulges facile metaphors: David was already haunted by the loss of his wife, Elizabeth was always “invisible” and disconnected from people, both of them desperately needed to find each other, etc. Despite its high-concept premise, it’s an ultimately predictable rom-com but it’s touching anyway, not unlike “13 going on 30”, which not so coincidentally also paired Mark Ruffalo with a spunky young woman (Jennifer Garner).