Just Like HeavenReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/16/05 14:00:30
At first glance, “Just Like Heaven” looks like another run-of-the-mill bit of rom-com nonsense–the type of thing that Reese Witherspoon does every couple of years to fatten up the bank account and allow her to do less commercially-inclined projects such as “Election” (where she gave the single best performance of 1999) and the criminally overlooked “Freeway.” If it had stayed at that level, I could have just shrugged it off, expressed a desire for Witherspoon to do more films worthy of her instead of the kind of pop-pap that she could perform in her sleep and moved on. However, there is an additional element to the film–one that the ads don’t quite get around to mentioning–that moves it from the level of dull-but-forgettable to some far more unsavory and off-putting. Simply put, this is one of the most appalling films to come down the pike in recent memory–a contrived bit of bunk that takes a serious issue and perversely twists it around to such a repulsive degree that it is staggering to believe that people as smart and talented as Witherspoon and co-star Mark Ruffalo could have willingly signed up for it regardless of how much they were paid for the privilege.As you have no doubt seen from the incessant trailers and commercials, the film stars Witherspoon as Elizabeth Masterson, a brilliant young doctor who has struggled so fiercely to score a key position at a San Francisco hospital that she has completely neglected her personal life. As the film opens, she gets that position but winds up getting creamed by a truck about five minutes later–no doubt because she didn’t have a man driving her who could have easily avoided such a mishap. Eventually, she returns to her fabulous apartment and discovers lovelorn slob David Abbott (Ruffalo) inhabiting it. Neither of them can understand why the other claims the apartment is theirs and neither can understand why Elizabeth’s hand passes through the telephone or why she can walk through walls. (They don’t ask why she is still able to sit down on beds and benches with no problem, of course.) Of course, no one else can see Elizabeth so David, fearing that he is going nuts, calls in an array of wacky ghostbusters and exorcists straight from Central Casting to rid him of what he believes to be a ghost. When he encounters a wacky spiritualist (Jon Heder, recycling his “Napoleon Dynamite” schtick), he points out that getting rid of Elizabeth’s spirit is less important than finding out why only he can see her.
It is at this point that the film makes its fatal wrong turn (and those who loathe spoilers should check out now). The two discover that Elizabeth is not actually dead–the car accident put her in a coma and she has been residing in her own hospital hooked to a breathing machine for three months. This wasn’t her wish–like most doctors, we are told, she signed papers saying that she didn’t want such measures to be taken–but luckily, her family and co-workers decided to ignore her explicit wishes. Now, her slimy former rival is pestering Elizabeth’s sister (Dina Waters) to pull the plug with all the warmth and subtlety of a comic-book victim–at one point, he literally shoves the papers into the sister’s hands while standing at Elizabeth’s bed. Now realizing the error of her scientific ways, Elizabeth, with the help of David (who himself lost a wife to a sudden medical mishap that neither he nor the doctors could prevent), must figure out a way to keep the machines on. Inevitably, this results in a wacky hospital chase involving David trying to steal away with Elizabeth’s comatose body and ends with a last-second medical miracle that will no doubt have any real physicians in the audience choking on their popcorn.
In other words, “Just Like Heaven” is essentially a romantic-comedy version of the Terri Schiavo case, only with a more red-state-friendly ending in which Evil (represented by doctors and their pesky reliance on medical science) is throughly beaten down by Good (represented by an apple-cheeked lass who learns the errors of her ways–both professionally and personally–and is literally rewarded with a second chance at life) in such a manner that you expect the ad quote to contain testimonials from the likes of Bill First (“See-I Told You So!”) Of course, the film was in production long before the media freak show of Schiavo’s final weeks so it can’t really be accused of exploiting the specifics of that case (although you get the sense that Dreamworks would have done anything to have it out in theaters last spring when the story was at its height).
However, that doesn’t take away the fact that it has taken a deeply serious issue that many people are forced to face every day and utilized it in a sickeningly one-sided manner. When we see Elizabeth’s body in the hospital, everything about her is neat and clean and perfect–aside from the breathing tube (notice how it isn’t a feeding tube?), it looks as if her worst problem is that she missed a tanning-booth session. Needless to say, the evil doctor ignores the fact that she is the liveliest-looking coma victim in recent history and is practically drooling with anticipation of taking her off life-support. As for the rest of her colleagues, friends and family, they all seem to recede into the background and bemoan the fact that Elizabeth was so ambitious that she didn’t take the time to smell the roses with that special somebody. For all of the go-girl spirit that the commercials seem to suggest, “Just Like Heaven” is so bluntly conservative at its core that it makes “Sweet Home Alabama” look like “The Battle of Algiers” by comparison.
Of course, being conservative in nature does not necessarily make a film bad by itself (as the films of John Ford and John Milius demonstrate). The problem with “Just Like Heaven” is that it displays this material in such a clumsy manner. The fantasy elements aren’t particularly dazzling, the comedic elements aren’t very funny and we can only determine that the Witherspoon and Ruffalo characters are falling for each other because the soundtrack songs basically insist on it. Neither of the two talented leads do anything more than trot out the same character types that they have done before–Witherspoon is another driven Type-A personality who has to learn to find her vulnerable side and Ruffalo does his laid-back schtick here to such an extreme that he often seems less visible than the apparition that he is sharing the screen with. They are surrounded by “colorful” supporting characters who are merely annoying and their adventures are shot in the blandest manner possible–the film has the visual style of a catalogue that you would never dream of ordering anything from.I suppose one could argue that I am reading too much into a film that has no greater agenda than to be a sweet romantic comedy about love conquering all and nothing more. Believe me, as someone who is a confirmed fan of Witherspoon and Ruffalo and who has liked, to varying degrees, most of the films of director Mark Waters (who brought a nice jaundiced edge to “The House of Yes,” the “Freaky Friday” remake and most of “Mean Girls”), I would have been perfectly content to see such a movie and respond to it on that level. However, “Just Like Heaven” goes off in another direction and no matter how well-intentioned it might have been, the results are fairly monstrous. Occasionally I will get asked by people if I ever see movies that genuinely offend me. Usually they are talking about exploitation trash along the lines of “Chaos” and I say no–such films generally try so hard to deliberately offend that they wind up coming off as kind of boring in their desperate efforts to (dis)please. “Just Like Heaven,” on the other hand, genuinely offended my sensibilities and the only thing more appalling than the film itself is my suspicion that it is going to wind up making a ton of money–a bit of news that I suspect would make any right-thinking film fan, regardless of political affiliation, reach for the plug themselves.
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