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Even by romantic-comedy standards, the degree of open-mindedness required not to scoff at Just Like Heaven is rather large. Based on a novel by French author Marc Levy, the movie takes a familiar bickering-strangers-who-fall-in-love story line and adds a dash of City of Angels—not to mention a lot of heavy-handed messages and some questionable physics.
Then again, it also has Mark Ruffalo, and—well, a little charm can go a long way. Ruffalo stars as David, a San Francisco sad sack who’s preferred cheap beer to human companionship ever since the end of a relationship two years earlier. David, with no discernible source of income, is unsuccessfully hunting for a furnished apartment (none of them have the right couch) when a flier for a sublet repeatedly smacks into him. Naturally, the place is big, beautiful, and generally perfect—except it has a month-to-month lease, and no one will discuss the previous tenant.
David soon begins to piece together why when one of his quiet nights is interrupted by Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon), who appears in the middle of his living room and screams when she sees him. When Elizabeth, a workaholic ER doctor—previously shown getting into a car accident after a 26-hour shift—tells him that she lives there, David assumes that they’ve been scammed. Or he does until Elizabeth vanishes, occasionally reappearing in, say, the bathroom mirror or the refrigerator to criticize his slovenly ways and try to get him to move out.
Freaked, David starts telling Elizabeth to “walk into the light!” whenever he sees her and consults some literature on the subject of ghosts recommended to him by Darryl (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder), a bookstore-clerk-slash-psychic. Darryl comes over to check out the “presence” himself but ends up agreeing with Elizabeth: Despite her ability to walk through walls, she’s not dead.
Elizabeth is basically Election’s Tracy Flick post-medical-school: a plucky Type A who’s horrified at the thought of beverages without coasters. We see her putting out fires all over the hospital in the film’s opening minutes, and even though she hasn’t slept for more than a day, her makeup’s perfect and her eyes sparkle at the end of her shift. David, meanwhile, is a slightly more cynical version of Ruffalo’s 13 Going on 30 Everydude. Laid-back and slightly sarcastic, David nevertheless starts nervously looking for Elizabeth around every corner, hides under a pillow and mutters, “Go away—you don’t exist” when she appears in his bedroom, and squeaks “I can’t” when, after witnessing a stranger’s collapse, Elizabeth commands him to make an incision in the man’s chest.
Scripters Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon and director Mark Waters (2003’s Freaky Friday) keep the tone lightly comic, distributing one-liners equally except to Heder’s character, who’s limited to such stoner exclamations as “Righteous!” and, weirdly, the moral of the story. Of course, even Elizabeth’s dry cleaner gets in on that: When David goes around asking people about his unwanted guest to figure out what happened to her, he gets ridiculous replies such as “When I think of her, I think of sadness and loneliness.” Turns out that Elizabeth’s drive and polish, you see, hid all the emptiness inside; she never took time out to smell the roses she’s shown dreaming about during her five-minute naps at work. The antisocial David, by contrast, is practically dead himself, and it doesn’t take a bookstore psychic to see where the story is headed.
The filmmakers mercifully keep the physical comedy to a minimum, though they do almost manage a scene in which David’s attempt to keep his ghostly companion from snatching his drink away at a bar is interpreted as dancing by his woo-hooing friend, Jack (Donal Logue). David’s subsequent flailing when Elizabeth actually enters his body goes too far, however. And better not to think about why Elizabeth can walk through a table yet can sit on a sofa, or even stand on a floor.
That said, logic has never really been a big part of romantic comedies. Perfect onscreen couples come together only through destiny, coincidence, and, as Ruffalo himself has demonstrated, time travel. If Just Like Heaven’s supernaturalism seems crass, it’s just because it’s been put in the foreground. Potentially more damaging is that Ruffalo and Witherspoon never really achieve that frisson that expresses their characters’ opposite-attraction. Still, a comfortableness is evident even when sparks aren’t flying, and both actors are effortlessly charismatic. They don’t exactly make Just Like Heaven a blissful spin on convention, but they do make it just pleasant enough for nonscoffers.
It’s not a stretch to believe in The Baxter, Stella comedian Michael Showalter’s directorial debut about the nice guys who always finish last. Showalter, who also wrote the script, stars as one of the gentle putzes the title refers to, the responsible, dependable sort who doesn’t sweep a woman off her feet as much as provide a sensible ottoman for her to rest them on. And just when he’s convinced her that nothing beats a sure thing, the whirlwind love of her life blows back into town, crashing through the church doors and shouting from the balcony à la The Graduate.
Showalter explains all this in voice-over as Elliot Wendall Sherman, an accountant who meets two women one Monday, his favorite day of the week. First, there’s Cecil (Michelle Williams), a sweet temp with a terrible haircut and worse posture who apologizes profusely for being 10 minutes late. Captivated, Elliot quickly finds out that, like himself, Cecil includes among her current reading material the dictionary. But just when he’s about to ask her to the opera, an appointment shows up: the luminous Caroline (Elizabeth Banks), a sophisticated magazine editor who says “Daddy tells me…” a lot.
The Baxter attempts to re-create the feel of the “old romantic movies” that Elliot refers to in his narration, so Caroline and Elliot’s ensuing courtship isn’t really seen and the couple’s raciest moment is when both are shown reading in bed. Soon they’re engaged, and though they’ve promised to keep no secrets from each other, Elliot discovers a nugget from Caroline’s past when her sister is showing him the family photo album. His name is Bradley (Justin Theroux), and he’s the fine-looking former love of Caroline’s life. “It would take an act of God for us to ever cross paths,” his fiancée reassures the not-so-attractive Elliot at their engagement party. Beat. “Caroline”—yep, that’s Bradley standing over Elliot’s shoulder.
It’s one of the funnier moments in a movie that’s a whole lot like the runners-up it celebrates: It won’t show you the time of your life, but it’s amiable enough. There aren’t any one-liners here, as in the similarly themed 40 Year-Old Virgin. Showalter’s humor is more subtle, whether it’s in the nauseating perfection of Bradley (a research scientist who quotes Keats, makes millions, and “enjoys hanging around the elderly”) or Elliot’s barely controlled freakouts (a scene in which he grasps at the bed and cries “Caroline!” while sleeping is a highlight). It’s all chuckle- but not guffaw-inducing, but to Showalter’s credit, none of his gags will make you roll your eyes—though a tired hide-the-other-girl scene does come close.
The bigger problem is that the script’s equal-opportunity derision eventually makes it hard to root for Elliot. At first simply a little nerdly, Elliot becomes increasingly insufferable as the fight for Caroline wears on. Initially, the onus is on Caroline—for example, she describes Elliot’s gift of flowers as “bulky” while beaming about the single stem Bradley picked that was “fighting its way through concrete”—but soon the Baxter’s appealing goofiness turns to clueless arrogance. Take the scene in which the three go out to dinner: After the group ditches Elliot’s reservations at a stuffy French restaurant to go to a burger joint of Bradley’s choosing, Elliot responds by pretending that he also eats there all the time—which naturally backfires when he asks to see the menu (the place doesn’t have one) and insists on ordering a ridiculous bottle of wine for the table (it serves only beer).
And Banks’ Caroline gets increasingly shrill, though she was never really believable as the kind of woman who would go for the Nice Guy in the first place. As the gulf between the allegedly appealing people and the schmucks grows wider, exactly where each character is going to end up becomes all too clear. What may surprise you, though, is that after its unimpressive meandering, The Baxter still manages to sucker-punch you with the sadness of a severed relationship and the subsequent joy of a new chance at love. Showalter dedicates the film “to every guy who’s a little out of step with the world.” The message, of course, is that they can still prevail. Though far from perfect, The Baxter, too, squeaks out a victory. CP