Five years ago, Bonnie Hunt's 2000 charmer Return to Me, starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver, won particular praise in Catholic circles for its affectionately depicted cultural context of Catholic faith and piety.
At the same time, some Catholics have taken legitimate exception to that film's implicit acceptance of heart transplantation, which remains an open issue in Catholic moral theology. (Pope John Paul II accepted brain death as a morally responsible standard for determining death, but the question has yet to be definitively addressed by the Church.)
Mark Waters’ Just Like Heaven has more than a little in common with Return to Me. Both are winsome romantic comedies with at least a hint of the supernatural, and address death and loss as well as love and laughter. Both are wiser than the average date movie about the temptation to withdraw from life and human relationships in the face of grief, and also about the annoyance of well-meaning friends trying to draw one out for one's own good.
Both films are also chaste romances about a couple who fall in love without tumbling into the sack. (Indeed, this isn't even a possibility in Just Like Heaven — though the film does include some decidedly unchaste behavior from a supporting character, as well as a good bit of rude dialogue.)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Just Like Heaven is its distinctly life-affirming, even pro-life twist with respect to end-of-life issues — especially since it's a romantic ghost story of sorts.
Here is a light comedy that — without remotely getting maudlin or morbid — dramatizes how a person not yet incapacitated is in no position to sign away life-sustaining measures in case they should ever become incapacitated, since, should it ever actually happen, they might well feel completely differently. Then, too, incapacitated patients may be more aware of events around them than we might give them credit for, doctors who compassionately counsel pulling the plug may well be blatantly misrepresenting the facts, and family members need to resist such pressure and defend the rights of their loved ones.
Waters’ previous hit comedies, Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, each had their problems, but boasted smart scripts and assured direction as well as solid performances from talented stars. Just Like Heaven may be more formulaic than his earlier films, but it has the same basic strengths.
The film benefits greatly from its appealing stars, Reese Witherspoon (Vanity Fair) and Mark Ruffalo (13 Going on 30). Witherspoon especially shines as Elizabeth, a dedicated but overworked young emergency-room doctor who has no life outside the hospital walls until that life is taken away from her in a way she can't understand.
Ruffalo brings brooding charisma to the role of David, a withdrawn young man who seems to have no connection to anything or anyone, except that he seems to have a connection somehow to Elizabeth, who mysteriously appears out of nowhere in his apartment — or is he in her apartment? Only Darryl (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder in a similarly surreal supporting role), a kind of stoner Zen-talking clerk in an occult bookstore, has any real insight into the uncanny goings-on. (Darryl roughly corresponds to Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost.)
The themes of the workaholic professional who needs to find a life outside the workplace and the withdrawn loner who needs to rejoin the human race are common ones in comedies, but they're developed here with more conviction than usual. The script is smarter than the typical rom-com, and Waters directs cannily, never letting either the emotion or the comedy get out of control.
Plotwise, the film is refreshingly clever about the dilemma of characters dealing with an extraordinary situation that they will have trouble convincing other people is real. I appreciate the forethought David puts into what he will need to say to one of Elizabeth's relatives in order to persuade her that he isn't crazy — and also how the conversation doesn't quite go as planned.
It's not without drawbacks. In contrast to the positive Catholic milieu of Return to Me, Just Like Heaven turns to the Catholic faith only for a satiric punchline, with a brief parody of a scene from The Exorcist (along with Ghostbusters, etc.). To be fair, it's more a movie joke than a religion joke, but it's still in wincingly poor taste. And the aforementioned unchaste behavior from a supporting character, a temptress neighbor of David's, goes further than it needs to (though nothing happens and her behavior isn't condoned).
Some viewers may also be turned off by the flaky new-age spin on the movie's circumstances represented by Darryl. For me, though, any misgiving about the film's spirituality is short-circuited, first of all, by the way things turn out not to be quite what you might expect, and also by the sheer goofiness Heder brings to Darryl. Clearly it's all a fantasy conceit; the movie isn't in the least making a serious statement about spirituality, as it is with respect to end-of-life issues.
What makes Just Like Heaven even more notable is the remarkable dearth of decent romantic comedies in the five years since Return to Me. In that time Hollywood has churned out a steady stream of disposable date movies featuring likeable stars in variously eye-rolling, embarrassing or downright insulting stories: 13 Going on 30, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Maid in Manhattan, Kate & Leopold. (Okay, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was all right, but that was technically an indie film.)
Just Like Heaven is the first Hollywood film since Return to Me that I would put in the same league as that earlier film, and that's saying something.
Content advisory: Sex-related talk and crude language; a crass attempted seduction; a brief, arguably profane parody of an exorcism. Mature viewing.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.