Is there such a thing as Fate? Is there some cosmic force looking out for our spirits? And if we don’t nurture that spirit, will Fate intervene? These are the concepts that Just Like Heaven explores in this light, romantic comedy that attempts to subvert the basic formula of the genre and does so with much success. Boy doesn’t even lose Girl until way late in the third act.
Reese Witherspoon plays Elizabeth, a workaholic doctor at a major San Francisco hospital. Elizabeth sacrifices everything for her career–friends, family, relationships–and listens enviously to her coworkers’ complaints about the other time consuming things in their lives. Then, just when Elizabeth starts making great strides in her career, she’s hit by a truck. Ain’t that the way.
Elizabeth’s family sublets her now empty apartment to David (Mark Ruffalo), who is still trying to recover from the death of his wife by drowning himself in alcohol and television. During a drunken stupor, Elizabeth appears in the apartment and both she and David think the other is trespassing, until Elizabeth starts walking through tables and walls. Grappling with the reality that Elizabeth exists in an ethereal form, together she and David discover who she was and why they’re connected.
Just Like Heaven works on many levels, one being the outstanding supporting cast, which includes Jon Heder, whom fans will recognize from Napoleon Dynamite. None of the supporting cast comes across archetypically flat. Ben Shenkman’s character, Brett, could easily be characterized as the villain because he’s a pompous, competing doctor, but in Shenkman’s capable hands, Brett never seems cinematically malicious. Jack (Donal Logue) is David’s best friend who only helps David so he can return the favor in some future illicit act. Abby (Dina Waters) is Elizabeth’s sister who, rather than breakdown into melodrama, pulls a butcher knife on David when he tells her that he can see Elizabeth’s spirit standing right next to him. Moreover, the romance is subtler here, taking a backseat to the oddball plot, but creeping up on you, nonetheless.
Both Ruffalo and Witherspoon play their roles expertly, feeding off each other’s “Odd Couple” energy with only a few deliveries that tried a little too hard to be funny. Fortunately, the comedic visual bits are there in spades. One scene has David performing minor surgery under Elizabeth’s guidance, while onlookers watch skeptically as David seemingly talks to himself like a lunatic.
Written by Leslie Dixon and directed by Mark Waters, who swears that he had nothing to do with the casting of his wife as Abby, Just Like Heaven is a romantic comedy that is surprisingly romantic enough to please the teenage girls, but funny enough so that their boyfriends won’t feel cheated watching it.