Usually the conflict in romantic comedies is that the two people in question simply don’t get along, or are kept apart by weak circumstances that are easily overcome in the film’s final act. But the conflict in “Just Like Heaven” is that one of the people is dead. Take that, “Must Love Dogs”!
The dead person in this agreeably cute rom-com is Elizabeth Masterson (the agreeably cute Reese Witherspoon), a harried E.R. doctor in San Francisco who is involved in a car accident one night, leading to her new non-corporeal state of being. Her apartment is sub-let by her bereaved family to David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo), a sad-sack whose wife died not too long ago and whom his friend/psychiatrist Jack (Donal Logue) cannot convince to get on with his life.
Trouble is, Elizabeth hasn’t left the apartment. Her spirit hangs around, appearing to David — and only David — and terrifying him. She’s terrified, too: As we learned in “The Sixth Sense,” sometimes dead people don’t even know they’re dead. Elizabeth is one of those, and she wants to know what this strange man is doing in her apartment. Then she realizes she can’t touch anything and starts to accept that maybe she’s not as alive as she thought she was.
She doesn’t FEEL dead, though, and there’s a reason for that that I won’t get into. But she’s definitely a spirit, and she definitely has amnesia about her life, leaving David — her reluctant mortal companion — to help her piece together clues about who she was and what happened to her.
(This includes visiting a wonky spiritualist played by Jon Heder, aka Napoleon Dynamite. I am supposed to mention this because it’s his first post-Napoleon role. I’m pretty sure the character doesn’t even need to be in the movie. But I’m glad Heder’s getting work, because he seems like a good guy.)
Witherspoon and Ruffalo have a fair amount of chemistry together, which is impressive given that their characters can’t make physical contact with each other. Witherspoon’s persona as a perky control freak is cemented — David summons Elizabeth’s spirit by threatening to put a coffee mug on the table without a coaster — and Ruffalo works his already-established mojo as a laid-back, likable loser to considerable effect. He handles the physicality of the role especially well, with ongoing comic reactions to Elizabeth’s presence and a particularly good moment when Elizabeth briefly inhabits his body. (Not overdone, thankfully, since we’ve seen that kind of comedy before.)
The writers are Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon, veterans of fair-to-middling comedies such as “Guess Who” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and their source material is a book by Marc Levy. They and director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls,” “Freaky Friday”) bring the film to an affably goofy climax that even has a few surprises, only to mar the achievement with an unnecessary conflict that delays the inevitable happy ending. Perhaps the bylaws of romantic-comedies required there to be a scene of the protagonists missing each other (set to a sappy pop song) before they could finally live happily ever after. But I say one major conflict is enough, especially when it’s a good one like somebody being dead.
B- (1 hr., 35 min.; )