Witherspoon film isn't `Heaven'-sent

MovieReview

September 16, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

On a muggy late-summer night, any movie set in San Francisco, where the fog cools and drains the air and wipes it clean, is apt to feel refreshing. That goes even for a movie as fifth-hand as Just Like Heaven. This boy-meets-ghost-loses-ghost-gets-ghost story blends ingredients from every spectral romance ever made. But when the shaggy boy (Mark Ruffalo) and the well-coiffed ghost (Reese Witherspoon) bop up and down hills filled with seductive and eccentric cityscapes, the setting provides its own fairy-tale uplift. In San Francisco, the lights don't just twinkle - they wink at you.

Ruffalo plays a man who's given up on himself. He's such a hopeless couch potato that he threatens to sprout buds. Then Witherspoon haunts his apartment, which used to be hers, and nags him to clean up and leave. He calls her a "little blond control freak." The moviemakers agree.

As a doctor hoping to win an open slot at a San Francisco hospital, Witherspoon is Johnny on the spot - she doesn't let a crisis on her watch get away from her. Yet as a ghost she learns that colleagues pitied her lack of social life. Recent patients in the audience think, "Who cares? Next time I go to the hospital, I want her."

Witherspoon has been mechanical lately - and hasn't been great for a decade, not since she was fearlessly funky in that twisted Red Riding Hood update, Freeway. Her constant variations on "the little blond control freak" (in Election, Sweet Home Alabama, even Legally Blonde 2) have started to infect her media image, the way Katharine Hepburn's patrician or high-minded roles in the mid-'30s tainted her celebrity persona and thinned the ranks of her fans. But isn't it premature for Witherspoon to do what Hepburn did in The Philadelphia Story: take a role that allows her to beat up on her own stereotype so she can make herself fresh and lovable all over again?

The director, Mark Waters, and writers, Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon (adapting a novel by Marc Levy), provide their physician heroine with a payoff for this mortification - the warm, wet-eyed Ruffalo. He turns out to be sensitive and grief-stricken, not lazy or sloppy. He also has one of those hard-to-resist, earthy-glamorous movie jobs. He's a landscape architect.

Of course, Just Like Heaven is no Philadelphia Story - or Topper. It's over-calculated even when it urges people (and ghosts) to be spontaneous and free. Witherspoon does her wounded go-getter number and Ruffalo gets to break hearts with his stricken countenance, but there's nothing special going on between them. The movie has some witty lines and situations. Ruffalo employs an exorcist, Chinese wonder-workers and would-be ghostbusters to evict Witherspoon from the apartment. She mocks his use of "Father Flanagan and the whole Joy Luck Club." But the one unexpected twist in the plot injects jeopardy, not comedy or true romance; it also inserts unwelcome reminders of a recent life-support controversy.

Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder repeats his amateurish neo-slacker thing as an occult-bookstore clerk who's also paranormally gifted. Sadly, most of the fun and all the magic derive from the location. The most enthralling fantasy of Just Like Heaven is that an unemployed landscape architect and a fledgling doctor can afford a sprawling apartment with a rooftop view in San Francisco.

Just Like Heaven

Starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo

Directed by Mark Waters

Released by DreamWorks

Rated PG-13

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score **1/2 (two stars and one half star)

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