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09/27/2005 - JUST LIKE HEAVEN


The romantic comedy genre is one of the most predictable genres around. Two people, usually total opposites, meet, bicker, fall in love, split up, then reunite by the end credits to heart-tugging effect. It's a formula that has worked well since the days of Garbo, but it's still a formula, and as such, gets mighty dull after the 357th time you've seen it. So the new romantic comedy JUST LIKE HEAVEN should count itself lucky, since it has two secret weapons: a script that puts a fresh spin on an old genre, and the endlessly radiant Reese Witherspoon.

Struggling to get over the death of his wife, Mark Ruffalo moves into a San Francisco apartment to drink himself to oblivion. But he suddenly finds himself confronted by the previous tenant, Reese Witherspoon, who says she lives there, too. Doctor Reese is a neat-freak workaholic while landscaper Mark is a laid-back slob, so we expect the usual "opposites attract" formula we've seen numerous times before. And we certainly get that formula here as Mark and Reese slowly warm to each other over the course of the movie. But the script, written by Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon, and based on the novel by Marc Levy, throws a few welcome curveballs. First, Reese isn't just your ordinary workaholic - she is a spirit who can walk through walls. Of course, a love affair between a human and a ghost has been done before (GHOST), but the writers avoid the familiarity trap because Reese isn't a ghost, she is the disembodied spirit of a coma patient. When Reese's sister plans to disconnect her from life support, it's up to Mark to save his new love. Not only have the writers put a fresh take on a timeworn genre (man falls for coma patient's spirit), but also they've added some life-and-death stakes that give this tale a level of suspense few romantic comedies can match.

Now JUST LIKE HEAVEN has plenty of romance and comedy, too. But director Mark Waters can't seem to find the right tone between them, wobbling from zany, over-the-top laughs (Reese's sister chasing Mark with a meat cleaver, Mark trying to kidnap Reese's body from the hospital) to melancholy drama (Mark tearfully mourning his wife). Because these two tones are such polar opposites, we're often confused over how to react.

The ground rules are also a problem. Even in a movie with supernatural elements, there needs to be some internal logic to suspend disbelief. But Reese's "powers" feel arbitrary. She is insubstantial enough to go through walls, but substantial enough to ride in cars. She possesses Mark's body to keep him from boozing, but doesn't do so when her medical experience could help him save a dying man. The script suggests that Reese and Mark are soulmates; that is why Mark can see her spirit when others can't. But Reese has been in a coma for three months - why didn't Mark see her sooner? Why did he have to rent her apartment to make contact? It's not as if she is trapped there - she can move about the city with ease.

Another issue is casting. As he was in 13 GOING ON 30, Mark Ruffalo is a glum male lead. It's true he is supposed to be grieving his beloved wife's death, but he is so dour that it becomes difficult to root for him and Reese to get together. Even when he is happy, his demeanor is so low-key that you often can't tell. Thank goodness Reese has enough charm, warmth and energy for the both of them. Whenever she is on screen, we're hooked.

HEAVEN may not be quite that for romantic comedy fans, but with an offbeat script and plenty of Reese, it's close enough.

Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.


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