- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

If metro critics thought “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” was catnip to benighted red-state Christians, wait till they get a load of “Just Like Heaven.”

A hokey romantic fantasy starring Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon, “Heaven” presupposes an afterlife, suggests affairs of the heart are intelligently designed and climaxes in a Terri Schiavo-like euthanasia dilemma.

Truthfully, “Heaven” is not seriously orthodox in any sense; it’s devoted more to the theology of “Ghost” than any traditional religion. Still, it unabashedly partakes of the experience of the numinous, as C.S. Lewis would say.

And it happens to be a pretty charming movie.

When we first meet Elizabeth Masterson (Miss Witherspoon), she’s an overachieving doctor at the end of a marathon 26-hour shift in a well-to-do San Francisco hospital. With no time for dating, her life is all syringes, charts, X-rays and the occasional marriage proposal from morphine-addled men. Upon learning that she’ll be promoted to attending physician — yippee — Elizabeth leaves for the night, hops in her car, cranks up the Cars’ “Good Times Roll” and heads over to her sister’s house for supper and a potential love match. And then: Hello, Mack truck.

Cut to Mr. Ruffalo, depressive but still fundamentally amiable, as David Abbott, a landscape architect seeking to pick up the pieces of his life (the details of the demise of his marriage aren’t immediately revealed). After a mildly amusing montage of pricey San Francisco real-estate , David chooses to start over in the former apartment of — wouldn’t you know it — the ill-fated Elizabeth.

Thus the conceit of the movie. Elizabeth’s ghost still haunts the place. More accurately, she haunts David, for reasons that gradually become clear to the couple (and instantly obvious to us): It’s the mother of all cosmic love connections.

At first, David can summon Elizabeth only through bad manners; she inconveniently pops up when he forgets to use coasters, or when he’d like nothing more than to go on an all-day Heineken bender. Tsk-tsk, Oscar. Soon, though, she never leaves his side, and the special-effects stunts that are toyed with in the beginning (the incorporeal Elizabeth can walk through walls, for instance) are eventually chucked.

While the movie isn’t as clever as director Mark Waters’ recent highlights (“Freaky Friday,” “Mean Girls”), it’s well-executed and always watchable, thanks to the very capable pair of Mr. Ruffalo and Miss Witherspoon, plus scene-stealing sideline performances from Ivana Milicevic (as David’s sexually hospitable neighbor) and Napoleon Dynamite himself, Jon Heder (as an occult book dealer). The great Donal Logue plays David’s psychiatrist friend Jack. (More of Mr. Logue and his comic edge would have been nice.)

To its credit, “Heaven” feels like it’s over in five minutes. There’s no fat here; it’s streamlined Hollywood romance at its most appealingly broad. Throw in the existential creature comforts, a hip soundtrack (the movie was named after the Cure’s hit song) and a life-affirming resolution. There are far less worthy commodities on which to fritter away your entertainment budget.


TITLE: “Just Like Heaven”

RATING: PG-13 (Sexual content; brief profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Mark Waters. Produced by Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes. Written by Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon, based on Marc Levy’s “If Only It Were True.” Cinematography by Daryn Okada. Original music by Rolfe Kent and Robert Smith.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.justlikeheaven-themovie.com


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