Just Like Heaven

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For years now, frustrated cinephiles have been bemoaning the gradual disappearance of the sophisticated Hollywood romp which relies on witty repartee and character development. The genre has given way to films featuring the crude humor, non-stop action, and eye-popping special effects which have become the staples of most modern motion pictures.

In deference to the bottom line, it seems that most studio executives have opted to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This explains the popular choice to emphasize the sensational at the expense of the cerebral.

However, one glaring exception to this trend is the remake, since new generations of fans have proven to be easily enthralled by a retread with a proven pedigree. So, Mark Waters, who directed a worthwhile new version of Freaky Friday in 2003, is back with Just Like Heaven, a thinly-veiled remake of Ghost, which landed the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay back in 1991. And in Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon, Waters has tapped a couple of scriptwriters who are equally experienced in updating big screen classics. Tolan was responsible for the recent revision of Bedazzled, while Dixon worked her magic on remakes of both The Thomas Crown Affair and Freaky Friday.

For some reason, the two decided that this overhaul of Ghost was far enough afield from the original material that they could change the title and need not credit Bruce Joel Rubin, its Oscar-winning creator. Still, the parallels are likely to be glaring to anyone who remembers the first which starred Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, and Whoopi Golderg.

That bittersweet love story transpired primarily inside a newly-rented loft where the spirit of a recently-murdered man desperately tries to warn his grieving girlfriend lover of a plot to take her life, too. To that end, he enlists the assistance of a pseudo-psychic, played by Ms. Goldberg in a memorable performance for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

I mention all of the above only because Just Like Heaven revisits most of these same elements, only flipping the script in terms of certain characters’ genders. Here, Reese Witherspoon stars as Dr. Elizabeth Masterson, a workaholic M.D. who ends up in a coma after a head on car crash. Mark Ruffalo co-stars as David Abbott, the lonely stranger who rents her San Francisco penthouse after it is put on the market three months later when it looks like she won’t make it. This go-round, it is Elizabeth’s ghost which haunts an apartment, for she needs help to prevent Dr. Rushton (Ben Shenkman), the colleague who covets her position, from pulling the plug on her prematurely, after he unilaterally declares her brain-dead. She and David have an ally in a Whoopi wannabe, too, Darryl (John Heder), a goofy clerk at a book store devoted to the supernatural. Despite all the superficial similarities, Just Like Heaven has enough fresh jokes and unique plot twists to stand on its own. Plus, the production has added a few colorful characters, including David’s concerned shrink (Donal Logue) and Elizabeth’s skeptical sister (Dina Spybey).

Kudos to Witherspoon and Ruffalo for generating considerable screen chemistry in their first outing opposite each other. In fact, they’re convincing enough to insure a teary-eyed send-off that makes you forget the fact that you’re watching a shameless rip-off.
The best romantic comedy since Hitch.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content.
Running time: 95 minutes
Studio: Dreamworks Pictures

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