Just Like Heaven (2005): Middling Romantic Comedy Starring Reese Witherspoon as Workaholic Doctor

Reese Witherspoon is busy this season, appearing in two vastly different roles: As legendary musician June Carter in Walk the Line, the biopicture of Johnny Cash, and as workaholic doctor in this romantic comedy.

With abundant charm, impressive skills in comedy and drama, and exuberant personality, Witherspoon can elevate almost every movie she’s in. It’s a major achievement, considering what a mishmash this metaphysical-otherworldly romantic dramedy is. Tough billed as romantic comedy, Just Like Heaven is more of a melancholy melodrama for at least half of its time. The whole movie has a wistful tone, enhanced by Rolfe Kent’s borderline schmaltzy score.

Savvy viewers will be able to detect traces of Capra, though they may debate whether Just Like Heaven is Capraesque or Capracorn (I think the latter). Then there’s the whole tradition of ghost movies, going back to Noel Coward’s stage play and movie Blithe Spirit, the endearing screwball comedy, Topper, starring Cary Grant as a ghost, and most recently, Ghost, which won Whoopi Goldberg’s medium a Supporting Oscar.

In other ways, the film recalls a cycle of yuppie films in the early 1990, such as Regarding Henry and Defending Your Life, in which workaholics, usually men, were told to slow down in her ambitious careerism and enjoy life more fully as human beings.

It’s hard to think of another director, who began small and independent, like Mark Waters in House of Yes, a darkly humorous satire inspired by Kennedy’s assassination, and has leaped so smoothly into mainstream, commercial Hollywood. While stylishly directed, as a follow-up to Waters’ comedy hits, Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven is a disappointing picture, a result of the hodge-podge screenplay by Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon. Waters, known primarily for his comedic gifts, is doing a better job in the film’s dramatic than the lighter stuff.

Just Like Heaven is vastly uneven. Though its running time is only 95 minutes, the film crams quite a few subplots, and changes it tone at least three times. Fortunately, the light amiable parts, in the second reel of the movie, offset the flat stretches in the first act and the preposterously absurd chase scene in the last.

In the first ten minutes, Just Like Heaven introduces its heroine, Elizabeth (Witherspoon), as a dedicated young ER doctor who has no personal life. Her boss and peers rely on her selfless service, but not without derision, as one colleague says, “Aren’t you lucky that all you worry about is work.” After talking to her worried sister, Elizabeth hits the road to visit her, when a fast-moving truck hits her. In the next scene, she’s back in the hospital, this time as a patient, and in coma.

Cut to David (Ruffalo), an inconsolable widower, still haunted and wounded by his wife’s death. Looking for a place in San Francisco, a city known for its shortage of nice space and high rent, he sublets an apartment, not knowing that it belongs to Elizabeth. Settling in, he quickly turns the neat, elegant place into a mess.

The last thing the morose David expects or wants is a roommate. Add Just Like Heaven to the list of romantic stories in which the protagonists’ first meeting is cutesy. Out of the blue, the pretty, decidedly controlling Elizabeth shows up at David’s place, adamantly insisting that the apartment belongs to her. After proving her point, by revealing little secrets about the place and its belongings, Elizabeth disappears as mysteriously as she appeared.

Strangely enough, changing the locks does nothing to deter Elizabeth, who begins to appear and disappear at will. In the first reel, the encounters mostly serve to rebuke David for his bad habits in her lovely apartment.

Then, convinced that she’s a ghost, David tries to help Elizabeth cross over to the “other side.” But while Elizabeth has discovered she has a distinctly ethereal quality–she can walk through walls–she is equally convinced she is somehow still alive.

In the third chapter, Elizabeth and David join forces in searching for the truth about her. Who exactly she is How she came to be in her present state The film changes in the last act into a rather absurd comedy-actioner, using the timeworn device of protagonists needed to accomplish something while time is running out. The pacing changes into something more frantic, as the couple have very little time to rescue Elizabeth from the hospital–or else risk their future together.

The film is at its weakest in the first reel, as a sort of Odd Couple variation, with the duo bickering over ownership and propriety matters. Witherspoon is such a winning presence that she almost overcomes the pathos in Elizabeth’s situation, though in the early meetings with David, she registers as a shrill.

There are some stabs at comedy, with references to ghosts and spirits of old movies. You may recall that in Norman McLeod’s Topper, when a giddy rich couple, Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, are killed in a car wreck, their ghosts decide to have a little fun by haunting their banker, Roland Young, whose life with his feather-headed wife (Billie Burke) is in dire need of spicing up. David, like Topper, is the only one who can see Elizabeth.

In Blithe Spirit (1945), David Lean’s version of Nowel Coward’s popular play, the wedding bliss of Rex Harrison’s cynical remarried novelist is threatened by the mischievous ghost of his first wife, Kay Hammond, who appears at a sance presided by Margaret Rutherford’s eccentric medium and proceeds to bother his none-too-amused second wife.

Borrowing devices from these movies yields some merry mix-ups, slapstick comedy, and pratfalls. There’s a humorous scene, when David meets his buddy Jack (Donal Logue) at the local pub, and Elizabeth’s ghost won’t let him touch his beer.

Unfortunately, for the most part, Peter Tolan (Analyze This) and Lesley Dixon (Mean Girls) adaptation of Marc Levy’s 2000 best-selling novel, If Only It Were True, goes for the touchy-feely with too much of the spiritual and otherworldly.

David is sleepwalking through life, following the death of his beloved wife. We get the point: David is as much (probably more) trapped between life and death as Elizabeth. Moreoevr, as a ghost, Elizabeth has more energy than the flesh-and-blood David. Very much in the tradition of screwball comedies, Just Like Heaven, is yet another movie in which women are assigned with enlivening men who are emotionally lost, frozen, or depressed.

Though Ruffalo has a co-starring role and is onscreen for a longer period of time, the movie belongs to Witherspoon; when she is not onscreen, the film turns morose and flat, largely due to the character he plays. Ruffalo, a good dramatic actor who has done little comedy, should not be blamed for giving a dour performance devoid of vitality.

Luckily, just when the story gets too somber and morose, the writers inject some energy through plot twists that change the movie into a more legit romantic comedy, with strong emotional touches. Before it’s almost too late, Waters manages to generate some necessary magic to rouse his movie from its own sleepwalking.

With the exception of one secondary role, Elizabeth’s sister (played by Dina Waters, director Waters’ real wife), the others are disappointing. Ivana Milicevic, as David’s seductive neighbor, is assigned with the film’s broadest and worst scene.

There’s even a more disappointingly flat turn by Jon Heder (of Napoleon’s Dynamite) as an occult bookstore owner who offers advice to David. A wacky psychic hired to help out, Heder plays what can be considered as Whoopi Goldberg’s role in Ghost.

By today’s standard, the special effects are modest and functional, enabling Elizabeth to pop up in the fridge, walk through walls, stroll through a table, and lie next to David in bed, without being able to touch him–at least for a while.

With Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, Waters was able to elevate teen flicks into smart and popular hits that could also be enjoyed by adults. But here he goes for the mushy and melancholy. We miss Nowel Coward’s inimitable wit and repartee in Blithe Spirit, and the endearing charm of screwball comedy-fantasy like Topper, that were given eloquent style by performers like Cary Grant.

Beware: If Just Like Heavn is a hit, there will be a sequel, as author Marc Levy has just published a sequel to his 2000 book, simply titled Finding You.