RomCom 101

Salt Lake City Weekly | September 9, 2005
Romance, like Nietzsche’s God, is dead. It is dead because we, the moviegoing audience, have allowed Hollywood to kill it.

On a surface level, it’s easy to kind of sort of almost enjoy Just Like Heaven. It’s genial enough, never overtly insulting to the intelligence, and seasoned with nice performances. But even at its best, it’s mechanical--a button-pusher of a flick that serves as a case study in how to construct a contemporary romantic comedy screenplay from a kit.

The “meet-cute”. Our protagonists need to encounter one another in a quirky way. To wit: Emotionally damaged David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) moves into a faaaaabulous San Francisco apartment, only to find that its previous occupant hasn’t entirely vacated. She’s Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon), a workaholic doctor whose car was hit by a truck while she was driving home one night. Caught in limbo, her spirit inhabits her old residence, in need of David’s assistance to remember who she is and what happened to her.

Perfunctory antagonism. Romantic comedy characters must dislike one another before they love one another. Slovenly David and anal-retentive Elizabeth spar like an existentially-challenged Oscar Madison and Felix Unger over his refusal to use coasters, and her refusal to go into the light.

Supporting comic relief. Just Like Heaven strays at least a little bit on this count, since Elizabeth’s lack of a corporeal form makes it hard for her to banter with gal-pals. David makes up for it by having two wacky conversation partners. Donal Logue plays his vaguely sleazy psychiatrist buddy, who shows up when the situation requires someone to throw off one-liners. And Jon “Napoleon Dynamite” Heder gets the juicier part of a groovy psychic who doubles as Explicator of Plot Points That Need Explicating. They get to be funny, and guide the protagonists towards the happiness we know is to be theirs if not for …

Impediments to happiness. Elizabeth is sort-of-dead. As impediments go, that’s right up there. Also, there is Elizabeth’s professional rival, who--in case it’s not bad enough that he wants the staff position she was offered before her accident--actually wants to hasten her permanent departure from the land of the living. This will lead to a satisfying moment later on when he is punched in the nose.

Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. It’s always a good idea to set your romantic comedy somewhere that can be lovingly photographed. Big cities work well with their picturesque monuments and urban bustle; San Francisco works particularly well with its lovely geography, architecture and bridges. If you’re concerned that the natural environment isn’t quite romantic enough, you can do what director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) does here, and shoot everything with such a dappled glow that the city appears radioactive. Also, the more atmosphere you include, the easier it is to ignore the moments when potentially clever devices--like Elizabeth’s ability to inhabit David’s body and control his movement--are used exactly once then promptly discarded.

Chemistry. This is the one thing that a screenwriter can’t predict, and you never quite know how it’s going to work until the actors are on screen together. Witherspoon and Ruffalo both prove entertaining here, but they don’t quite have It--that ineffable something that makes great screen pairs click, and makes it easier to ignore all these carefully followed rules.

The big kiss. It’s here, folks. If you didn’t think it was, you’ve never seen a hundred movies exactly like this one--many of them not as well-crafted, many of them not as funny, but all of them going to the same comfortable place. They’re the fantasies that feed a vicious cycle of our need for predictable fantasy love, because real love doesn’t look as magical as it looks in the movies. Just Like Heaven amuses and diverts, but deep down, it’s just like the rest.


**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Donal Logue.

Directed by Mark Waters

Rated PG-13

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