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Just Like Heaven   C+

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Mark Waters
Writers: Peter Tolan, Leslie Dixon (based on the novel If Only It Were True by Marc Levy)
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Donal Logue, Dina Waters, Ben Shenkman, Jon Heder, Ivana Milicevic.

Review by Rob Vaux

Before we begin our review, a public service announcement:

Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" is a song about junkies and heroin addiction. It describes the lengths to which users will go to get their fix, and the feeling of utter debasement at the bottom of the cycle. Its peppy, upbeat tone is intended for ironic effect, a fact that distressingly few members of the media hegemony have picked up on of late. It has been cropping up in the most stunningly wrong-headed promotional tie-ins, and it needs to stop. Now. Trust me, folks, this is not the song you want to use in your sitcom, your cruise ad, or your peppy, upbeat romance featuring adorable button-nosed waifs like Reese Witherspoon. Listen to the lyrics, for God's sake! Do you want your consumer base taking it in the ear?!

Bad media hegemony. No biscuit.

The unsettlingly glossy use of inappropriate music is only part of the problem with Just Like Heaven. So strained is its consistency, so contrived its presentation, that it weighs down the considerable charms of Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, who might have otherwise gotten it to fly. Witherspoon, in particular, eats movies like this for breakfast: her ravishing combination of brains, beauty, and Myrna Loy goofiness can set even the coldest heart alight. Ruffalo, for his part, has always done decently as a romantic straight man and thrives on the chemistry he establishes with his co-star here. Would that more of the project was worthy of the standard they set.

The premise is a high-concept reimagining of Ghost, though director Mark Waters aims more for slapstick than mawkish sentiment. It begins when Witherspoon's workaholic Elizabeth is caught in a bad accident on the way to her sister's house. Three months later, grieving widower David (Ruffalo) moves into her apartment, trying to forget a deeply painful past. But then Elizabeth shows up -- apparently from beyond the grave -- and tells him to get out. She looks fine, except for the fact that she can walk through walls, and while she's perfectly capable of berating David for his personal habits, she has no memory of who she is. At first David thinks he's seeing things. But then as he starts to interact with the apparition (and she with him), he begins to realize that the mystery lies deeper than that.

Certainly, Elizabeth's condition makes for a decent comic fulcrum. She's incorporeal and no one but David can see her, a fact that Waters spins into a moderately amusing collection of gags. This is a rom-com, so naturally the pair begin bickering at first sight, seemingly unperturbed that one of them is less than earthbound. But while the concept holds us for a time, Just Like Heaven never develops it beyond basic plot complications, which ultimately wear thin as the film goes on. Beneath it lie the same old formulaic ideas, including a ticking clock to goose the story forward and a series of uninspired obstacles to keep David and Elizabeth from realizing how much they're falling for each other. The script by Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon occasionally tries to mix things up, mainly by adding a vampish neighbor (Ivana Milicevic) with the hots for David and a zoned-out psychic (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder) who fights his way to modest scene-stealer status. The efforts add a few smiles, but not enough to obscure Just Like Heaven's essentially threadbare status. And when we finally learn the cause of Elizabeth's condition, it sets the last third of the film adrift in political waters far deeper than such a slight vessel can handle.

Against that, Witherspoon and Ruffalo fight a valiant battle to keep us engaged. Their characters are never less than likeable, and though they live in that magical rom-com universe where no one has to work and everyone has nice apartments, we still care about their predicament. But that can't overcome the film's overall lack of ambition, or the fact that too much material has been recycled from too many other sources. Just Like Heaven will do in a pinch if you need an undemanding love story, but a couple like this deserve more than just a usable gimmick behind them.

Review published 09.15.2005.

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