"Just Like Heaven" is as uneven as the topography of its San Francisco locales, but the amiable peaks mostly offset the flat stretches and valleys. A variation on a very old meet-cute theme with a touch of otherworldly romance, pic will need to tap deeply into the "Ghost" audience, given the dearth of laughs for manly men.

Considerably more mushy than madcap, “Just Like Heaven” is as uneven as the topography of its San Francisco locales, but the amiable peaks mostly offset the flat stretches and valleys. A variation on a very old meet-cute theme with a touch of otherworldly romance, pic will need to tap deeply into the “Ghost” audience, given the dearth of laughs for manly men. Otherwise, prospects of a robust box office life (and more likely, afterlife) rely almost entirely on the warming glow of Reese Witherspoon’s abundant charms.

Directed by Mark Waters, on something of a roll coming off “Mean Girls” and “Freaky Friday,” “Heaven” introduces Elizabeth (Witherspoon) as a driven young ER doctor whose work/personal balance is seriously out of whack. When hospital colleagues grouse about juggling such entanglements, one tells her she’s “lucky that all you worry about is work.”

A fast-moving truck later and she’s suddenly appearing in spectral form, haunting the emotionally wounded David (Mark Ruffalo), who has sublet her apartment. David, it turns out, is sleepwalking through life following his wife’s death, and after trying to convince Elizabeth that she’s dead, gradually begins to form an attachment to her.

Pic is weakest through these early stages, as the pair go about trying to discover who Elizabeth is/was and what happened to her. There are some stabs at broader comedy here — and even wry references to the ghost(busting) of movie spirits past, since David, a la “Topper,” is the only one who can see Elizabeth, yielding merry mix-ups when he decides to meet his buddy Jack (Donal Logue) at the local pub.

For the most part, though, Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon’s adaptation of Marc Levy’s novel hews toward the melancholy, propelled by the idea that David is every bit as much trapped between life and death as Elizabeth. And while it’s perhaps necessary to establish that anguish, Ruffalo’s performance proves so dour initially as he wallows in depression that it leeches some of the story’s vitality.

Just when the movie appears moribund, however, the narrative comes modestly alive thanks to a reasonably clever plot twist establishing a much-needed sense of jeopardy. And as evidenced by the teenage girls who audibly sighed at the more shamelessly romantic flourishes, the allure of an emotional connection that can overcome physical boundaries has a lucrative track record.

The irony here is that Waters was hired primarily for his comedic gifts, and delivers more pointedly on the dramatic front. Indeed, the main problem is there are too few laugh-out-loud sequences for what’s billed as a comedy, creating something of a marketing dilemma.

Witherspoon is such a winning presence as to help instill pathos in Elizabeth’s situation, but she isn’t displaying the buoyant personality that made the “Legally Blonde” franchise percolate. In her early encounters with David, rather, she comes across as something of a shrew.

Fortunately, the principals receive solid support in smallish roles from Logue, Dina Waters as Elizabeth’s sister and Ivana Milicevic as David’s seductive neighbor, with a disappointingly flat turn by “Napoleon Dynamite’s” Jon Heder as a half-baked occult bookstore dude from whom David solicits advice.

Effects-work nicely conveys Elizabeth’s wraithlike predicament — from popping up in the fridge to strolling through a table — which keeps Witherspoon in the same outfit for much of the film. Rolfe Kent delivers a score that captures the wistful tone without being cloying.

In a sense, then, Waters ultimately accomplishes the oldest of fairy tale tricks — generating just enough magic to rouse a slumbering movie from its trance, even if the final experience is something less than heaven.

Just Like Heaven

Production

A DreamWorks release of a Parkes/MacDonald production. Produced by Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes. Executive producer, David Householter. Co-producer, Marc Levy. Directed by Mark Waters. Screenplay, Peter Tolan, Leslie Dixon, based on the novel "If Only It Were True" by Marc Levy.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Daryn Okada; editor, Bruce Green; music, Rolfe Kent; production designer, Cary White; art director, Maria Baker; set decorator, Barbara Haberecht; costume designer, Sophie de Rakoff; sound (Dolby Digital DTS SDDS), Douglas Axtell; visual effects supervisor, John Sullivan; associate producer, Veronica Brooks; assistant director, Benjamin Rosenberg; second unit director, David R. Ellis; stunt coordinators, Jimmy Romano, Rocky Capella; casting, Marci Liroff. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, Los Angeles, Aug. 24, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Elizabeth - Reese Witherspoon David - Mark Ruffalo Jack - Donal Logue Abby - Dina Waters Brett - Ben Shenkman Darryl - Jon Heder Katrina - Ivana Milicevic
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