It may be a tad premature for the sap to be flowing in Maine, but it’s currently flooding through the lightweight comedy “Heart and Souls.” Recalling such vintage fantasy fare as “Topper” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” the current incarnation lacks an all-important element from the past — namely charm. While it may garner initial steam from its enchanting cast, the film’s ongoing prospects amount to little more than vapor.
The elaborate set-up begins in San Francisco circa 1959, when a bus carrying four passengers veers off an overpass to avoid colliding with a car driven by a couple on their way to the hospital to have their first child. The driver and passengers of the urban transport are killed, but the passengers are, by some presumed divine judgment, assigned to guard the boy’s welfare.
The task becomes more problematic when the boy — Thomas Reilly — enters school, and it’s assumed his discussions with invisible friends mask an emotional problem. So the angels decide to disappear.
The filmmakers might have been well advised to end their yarn here.
Instead, they speed to the present, where young Tom has evolved into a yuppie-scum bankruptcy banker played by Robert Downey Jr. The invisible cadre feel just awful about what he has become. At about the same time, the heavenly bus driver — steering his way though a hole in the plot you can, well, drive a bus through — returns to take them onward.
It turns out someone at the front office was sleeping, and though he’s a little late, the driver’s back to give the four a chance to redeem their past through their temporal host. The angels have been denied that option long enough and are going to get it before their ultimate destination.
This is delicate material that needs to put a premium on the precious. It requires a considerably lighter hand than the one wielded by director Ron Underwood. Moreover, co-writers Wilson and Maddock, who teamed with Erik and Gregory Hansen, prove on the basis of this and their earlier “*batteries not included” that they are not masters of whimsy.
That the effort is at all watchable is a tribute largely to its performers’ skills. The angels embodied by Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick and Tom Sizemore breathe credibility into the tale and occasionally elevate this piffle to strike a human chord. Downey is an amazingly pliant performer and Elisabeth Shue is radiant if underutilized. Collectively they deserve medals for retaining their dignity in extreme circumstances.
“Heart and Souls” is more than just an awkward title. This film requires a leap of faith that will only result in dire personal consequences.