THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"JUST LIKE HEAVEN"

Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon) is one of those people who are so busy getting ahead that they never stop to actually enjoy life. An emergency room doctor at a large San Francisco hospital, she is coming off a shift that lasted 26 straight hours. This kind of determination lands her a desired residency but has also left her alone and loveless. Her sister, having long worried about Elizabethís lack of a social life, has arranged a blind date. Alas, it is a date she will never attend, because her car plows head-first into a truck on the way there.

David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) is a boozing widower trying to hide from life. He needs a furnished apartment to live in, and ends up renting the one owned by Elizabeth. David is startled one day when Elizabeth shows up in his living room, demanding to know what heís doing in her place and chastising him for putting a moist beer bottle on her mahogany table. They converse several times over the next few days, but he can only see her sporadically before she mysteriously vanishes. Is the booze affecting him, or is there a ghost in the building? Eventually the two come to the conclusion that she is a spirit who doesnít know that sheís dead. After accepting this startling news, Elizabeth asks David to help her try to remember things about her life. Helping out is Daryl (Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite), the psychic owner of an occult book store.

This is the premise of Just Like Heaven. The film starts off a little slow with the set-up. It can be difficult to set all the rules in a movie like this. The screenplay has to establish a sense of logic to explain who can see whom, how far they can interact, and how they come to realize that the whole situation is supernatural. Such things can be talky and awkward, not to mention credibility-straining. During these early scenes, I wondered if this was going to be one of those forced comedies where the filmmakers try to shove the laughs down our throats.

Once the story established itself, though, the movie began to pick up a nice rhythm. David and Elizabeth donít initially like one another Ė they fight over possession of the apartment Ė but they bond when they start asking questions about her life. She confesses remorse that she never took the time to look for love; he acknowledges that heís dead too, having given up on life following the death of his wife. Searching for answers makes both of them feel alive again and, before you know it, David and Elizabeth seem to be falling in love. There is an additional twist to the plot, but Iím not going to spoil it here. Itís enough to say that something else factors in that helps draw the two together, just as I was drawn in.

Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) and Mark Ruffalo have made a smart decision in letting David be a dark, troubled guy. A lot of times, the hero is ďdarkĒ in a safe, lovable way. (Think John Cusack in Must Love Dogs.) I always think that kills the emotion in a story; if a character is miserable, let him be miserable for real. In this case, David is miserable, which makes us better understand why he chooses to help Elizabeth (itís easier than believing that heís crazy) and why she comes to mean so much to him (she helps him to heal). Ruffalo takes a part that could have been played generically by a dozen of the usual romantic comedy suspects and brings real emotion to it.

Because Ruffalo is always such a vibrant actor, he is effectively paired with Reese Witherspoon, a performer who radiates intelligence. Sheís someone who always appears to be thinking, analyzing, or sizing things up on screen. Just by casting them, the movie is elevated to something slightly above the norm. Instead of having two actors playing cutesy, we now have the creation of two characters who are worth caring about. Toss in Jon Hederís amusing psychic dude-speak for comic balance and you have a winning combination.

The plot takes some wild twists and turns, combining a semi-serious meditation on fate with moments of broad physical comedy. That combination can be slightly uneven in spots, but it scarcely matters given how well everything is done. There is a very funny scene in which Elizabeth inhabits Davidís body to keep him from getting drunk in a bar. Itís a moment that reminds me of the Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin comedy All of Me in which the comedians battled for control of the same body. There is something almost old-fashioned about the style of Just Like Heaven. The two main characters have a screwball chemistry that starts off with hostility, then blossoms into deep affection.

Just Like Heaven is the latest in a long line of big screen romances in which one of the two main characters is not alive (City of Angels, Ghost, and Down to Earth also do variations on the theme.) The premise has essentially been done before, but itís done so well here that I didnít care. Ruffalo and Witherspoon bring conviction to their roles; theyíre taking the story seriously and that allows us to do the same. Just Like Heaven could easily have been a piece of hollow sentimentality, but itís not. This is a sweet, genuinely romantic film thatís great for seeing with someone you love.

( out of four)


Just Like Heaven is rated PG-13 for some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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