It's hard to imagine much new in the realm of ghost movies. We've had dramas, comedies, romance, and of course more than our share of ghost related horror. Just Like Heaven is savvy enough to know that, even make fun of it, but it's unwilling to take a step outside it's carefully defined rom-com parameters to do more than nod in passing at the played out nature of the boy meets ghost genre.
The film stars Mark Ruffalo as a… well that'd be a spoiler. Just Like Heaven is difficult to talk about without ruining something, since the story is quietly doled out through unexpected or slowly developed character reveals. What I can tell you is that Ruffalo plays David Abbot, and David has just rented a fully furnished apartment. The apartment is not empty, it's occupied by the semi-corporeal spirit of its former owner Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon), who despite being able to walk through walls, does not believe she is dead. The catch is that of course for some reason only David can see, and much to his chagrin, hear her. Elizabeth is understandably miffed that David is squatting in what she believes to still be her pad, David is understandably freaked the hell out that he's being haunted and/or has an imaginary friend.
There are at least a dozen places in Just Like Heaven where a little tweak this way or that could have turned the film into a deeply moving, bittersweet, memorable experience. But whenever the movie treads into one of those spots, it pulls back. It's determined never to stray too far from it's light, airy, romantic comedy marketing brochures, even though there's clearly enough material and talent here for something much more significant, timely, and better. It kind of makes you wonder what the original script must have been. The film is loosely based on the novel "If Only It Were True", but that doesn't mean Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon's script was slaved to that. Did their take start out as an empty romantic comedy, or did they originally create something more significant, only to have it watered down by a studio system hungry for money from the stereotyped fan of Reese Witherspoon?
Wistful conjecture aside, the film is not without moments of honesty and clarity. It's often surprisingly unconventional, in a way that few romantic comedies can be bothered. Take David's downstairs neighbor Katrina (Ivana Milicevic): On the surface a hot, vapid, slut. She attacks him with all the clumsy sexual verve she can muster, while invisible Elizabeth voices her disgust in David's ear. The film doesn't just abandon Katrina as a jealousy plot device, instead in a single poignant moment it fleshes her out by having her reveal what she's doing throwing herself at him. "I hear you up here all alone" she says after multiple rejections. Katrina reveals that she's simply lonely, and though she's not exactly a rocket scientist, thought that perhaps David, like her, might need someone warm to be close with. However the script doesn't stop there. Elizabeth, in her own moment of sad, emotional realization stops to reassess. "Go to her David," she says, echoing her own desperate, unfulfillable need to touch and be touched.
Of course it's there that Just Like Heaven again pulls back, returning to doing all the usual things that romantic comedies (especially ghost themed romantic comedies) do. It's not perfect, but I can live with that. For the type of film Just Like Heaven is hell-bent on defining itself as, it's capable. Director Mark Waters is not without style, the interior of David's apartment is flooded with beautiful sunlight, and the movie's palate is put together from earthy, comfortable tones that sit equally well with a nice cup of coffee or a dimestore romance. Mark Ruffalo is as usual wonderful, in this case playing David like a gentle, brooding, recently beaten bullmastiff. He views the world quietly and from a distance, never overplaying the films big moments nor underplaying them. Being romantic doesn't turn him into a meterosexual either. It's rare that an actor comes through such a blatantly sappy rom-com with his manhood intact, but Ruffalo does it. Reese Witherspoon does little to step outside her normally spunky, occasionally anal retentive idiom. Had the film chosen to go in the much more interesting direction I pined for earlier, they might have needed a different actress. Since that's not what it is, romantic comedies are her comfort zone and she works well within it. The trailers make a big deal out of flavor-of-the-moment John Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) being in the movie, but his is a pleasantly minor character. He jumps in to deliver brief, plot pushing comedy relief (of the type that's hard to screw up) and is easily forgotten.
If you've read this far, you already know what this movie is. It's a date movie, and a decent one at that. It brings enough originality to the table to keep from being bogged down in obvious Ghost comparisons, but not so much originality that it'll actually start anyone thinking. The last thing you want to do on a date is start using your brain. That's why we have alcohol, to put a stop to that. Idealized romance is all about chemical connections and random mumbo jumbo. Just Like Heaven does a solid job of boiling that brew while asking nothing taxing in return.