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Just Like Heaven
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Review Date: 9/27/05

Just Like Heaven, directed by Mark Waters, stars Reese Witherspoon as Elizabeth Masterson, a young doctor doing her residency, and Mark Ruffalo as David Abbott, a former landscape designer turned depressive bum after the death of his wife Laura. It features three really good actors in supporting roles: Donal Logue as Jack, David’s friend and therapist; Dina Waters as Abby, Elizabeth’s older sister; and the goofy Jon Heder from  Napoleon Dynamite, as Darryl, the manager of a psychic bookstore and a surprisingly talented psychic himself. 

The movie is a weird sort of comedy that ever so delicately takes on the Terry Schiavo case and manages, believe it or not, to handle it with a light touch and a lot of humor. The story begins tragically when Elizabeth (whom David calls, to her eternal consternation, Lizzie), finished a 26 hour shift at the hospital and, as she’s driving home, gets hit in a head-on collision by a truck. Meanwhile, dejected David finds, as if by destiny, an apartment to rent that turns out to be, of course, Elizabeth’s former home in San Francisco. As an aside let me say that these comic fantasies always work especially well when everyone in question has pots and pots of money—the apartment  looking out onto Coït Tower is to die for. So Elizabeth shows up, indignant that someone—and a slob at that!—is occupying her apartment, and their acquaintance begins. David can’t figure out why he’s the only one who can see her (at first he thinks it’s the drink, but then he resorts to doing research on spirits and ghosts) and enlists the assistance first of his therapist then of a man who runs a psychic bookstore. This is what critics call an Idiot Plot—there are many moments in the movie where a simple step would solve the whole riddle of the story, but of course each of the characters is too much of an idiot to take that simple step, so we are treated to a whole long complicated set of events to get there. In this case, though, it’s very nicely done, and fun to boot. There are some fabulous lines in the movie; and on the whole I’d say the dialogue is superior, such as when Elizabeth and David go to Abby’s house and it turns out that Abby’s daughter can see Elizabeth. Elizabeth moans, “It turns out my fate is in the hands of a 4-year-old who has 7 other imaginary friends!” or when she says to David, “You have two realities to choose from. The first is that a woman has come into your life in a very unconventional way and she needs your assistance. The second is that you’re a crazy person talking to himself on a park bench.”

It’s moving too, in that wonderfully light way: Witherspoon and Ruffalo are both endearing in their very different ways: she’s sharp and painfully cheery, he’s passive, depressed and somehow for all that gentle and charming.  Every little plot twist is solved by the end, and every detail remembered and followed through. It’s a perfectly crafted little comic fantasy, delightful in all the ways we want a movie to be when we want satisfaction for our unrealistic but still heartfelt dreams and wishes. Normally, I hate comedies, but this one was smart enough, well-written enough, and so gorgeously acted that it won me over. And what might otherwise have been a very tricky subject is handled in just the right sort of funny and irreverent way.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.