Dr. Elizabeth Masterson is a fastidious workaholic at a San Francisco hospital. Married to marathon shifts and little else, this good-hearted, socially detached physician is on the brink of a career coup when a car accident cuts her plans short.
Several months later a young architect named David Abbott can’t seem to find a furnished apartment that meets his needs. Fate directs the grieving widower to Elizabeth’s pad, which her sister, Abby, wants to rent out on a month-to-month basis. It suits him. David settles in, only to get a shocking visit from the apartment’s previous tenant, a spooky stranger who, in a state of metaphysical flux, fails to realize that life has moved on without her.
Unaware that she’s been reduced to mere spirit, a perturbed Elizabeth insists that David vacate the premises immediately (or at least have the decency to use coasters). He refuses. She proceeds to pester him, but then softens as she gets to know him better. Likewise, he develops a reluctant respect for this intrusive presence, although most of the people around him think he’s cracking up. (Their inability to see or hear her yields humorous moments.) To complicate life further, since having transcended the mortal coil Elizabeth has no recollection of who she is, leading the odd couple on a quest to fill in the blanks. Their friendship grows, forcing them to confront new emotions, attractions ... and revelations about Elizabeth’s condition.
Elizabeth’s professional ethic is terrific. She cares more for her patients than for her own comforts. She’s smart, sensitive and sweats the details. She also shares playful moments with her nieces and, upon seeing a mother and child in the park, says wistfully, “I think I would’ve liked to have been a mom.” When David drowns his sorrows in beer, Elizabeth acts as his conscience, condemning his reliance on alcohol. David’s shapely neighbor is a sexually aggressive woman eager to sleep with him, yet he turns down this “sure thing.” Modesty inspires him to don shorts while showering after the spectral Elizabeth invades his privacy several times.
There’s an overriding theme of living life to the fullest and enjoying loved ones, because each day is a gift with no guarantee of what tomorrow will bring. The film condemns both workaholism and selfish ambition. Also, Elizabeth rediscovers who she is by hearing friends, family and co-workers talk about her, which will no doubt cause viewers to wonder what their own legacy might be if told by those close to them. With Elizabeth’s help, the squeamish David tries to save a man’s life with emergency surgery. With selflessness and creativity, David makes a grand romantic gesture to the woman he loves.
[Spoiler Warning] The strongest moral in the film involves a key plot twist. After assuming that Elizabeth must have been killed in the car wreck, we learn that she has simply been in a coma for the past three months. Dramatic tension arises when doctors try to convince her next of kin that keeping her on life support is fruitless and just “prolonging the inevitable.” The story (while taking quirky theological license) makes the point that, since we can’t know for sure the spiritual state of a comatose person, it’s dangerous to assume that they are less than fully alive. Formerly against being sustained by artificial means, Elizabeth is suddenly opposed to anyone pulling her plug, yet is helpless to alert them that she’s “still here.” Director Mark Waters isn’t preachy with this pro-life message. Still, the need to protect the humanity of people on life support comes through loud and clear.
For Witherspoon’s character, this film is one long out-of-body experience. As long as she isn’t fully conscious or dead, her spirit is free to roam about in order to take care of “unfinished business.” She can reach into a person’s head and literally mess with his mind. In one scene she possesses David (think Lily Tomlin commandeering half of Steve Martin in All of Me) to keep him from drinking.
Desperate for answers, David peruses books on the afterlife and even conducts a private séance to summon Elizabeth’s spirit. The film’s unorthodox spirituality pokes fun at Dan Aykroyd-style ghostbusters, Asian women conducting a cleansing ritual and a Catholic priest who repeats, “The power of Christ compels you” as he flings holy water aimlessly at an unseen target. The most tuned-in outsider is a New-Ager named Darryl (Jon Heder, adored by teens for his recent nerd-chic role as Napoleon Dynamite). He can’t see Elizabeth, but accurately senses her moods and refers authoritatively to “dark” or “red” auras and deep secrets (“There’s this cancer-causing ray of spirit hate searing right toward your body”). Also, while Elizabeth’s young niece can’t see or hear her, she is instinctively aware of her presence.
When her life ebbs away at one point, Elizabeth’s image begins to fade into eternity. What’s on the other side is anyone’s guess (no discussions of God, heaven or hell), though when told to “walk into the light” she insists that there isn’t a light. Before her accident she has a strange dream that plays into the otherworldly events that follow. As romantic attraction builds, contact between the mortal David and the “hovering” Elizabeth generates a supernatural spark. A heartless doctor advising a wavering Abby to terminate life support says sometimes it’s “easier just to ask God for forgiveness than prolong the inevitable.”
More gets implied or discussed than shown. It’s said that Abby was intimate with another man five minutes before her wedding. Elizabeth may have been having an affair with a married doctor. At first she’s disgusted by the possibility that she was “a lonely, home-wrecking slut,” but then rationalizes it by saying, “There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy sexual appetite.”
A flirtatious neighbor wears provocative clothing and wheedles her way into David’s apartment to proposition him. After focusing on her chest and low-slung pants, the camera follows her to the door of David’s bedroom where she undresses out of view and tosses her underwear into the hallway. Wearing only a towel, she drops it and reveals herself to David. Elizabeth tells him to go ahead and sleep with the woman (fortunately he doesn’t). For her last night on earth, Elizabeth elects to lie in bed and “connect” with David, though the intimacy is more symbolic than physical. A couple make out in a broom closet. David and Elizabeth kiss.
David punches an antagonist in the face. Guards wrestle a man to the floor. Abby threatens David with a meat cleaver. Elizabeth’s car is hit by an oncoming truck (implied), severely injuring her. Her spirit accidentally lunges through a top-floor apartment window and is heard plummeting to earth.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A crazed man receives a sedative. Elizabeth habitually gets jacked up on caffeine to function at work. David drinks a lot of beer, in part to drown the pain of having lost his wife to a brain hemorrhage. At one point he admits he was wasted. He chugs vodka for strength. He orders a double scotch at a bar. Although Elizabeth chides him for consuming so much alcohol, she later sees a photo of herself taken when she and her sister were plastered on margaritas, and recalls it was “more fun than I ever had in my life.” David’s pal tells him he should drink heavily at a party because, “God gave us alcohol as a social lubricant to make men brave and women loose.”
The talented Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon share an everyman chemistry that works nicely in Just Like Heaven. They lift otherwise drippy, saccharine moments to a more tolerable level, making this often sweet supernatural feature one that could appeal to fans of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and, more recently, Ghost. Still, I was left with a few questions. For example, why is it that Elizabeth’s spirit won’t interact with solid matter (she walks through walls and isn’t able to pick up objects), yet she can sit on a park bench without falling through it? Hmmm.
But that’s a forgivable inconsistency. Other aspects of the film are harder to manage. First, there’s rampant theological foolishness, at times peddled with subtle stoner flair by Heder. Then there’s the language, alcohol use and sexual humor. Why go there? Like Waters’ Mean Girls, this well-intentioned film has a good soul and snatches of moral conscience—not to mention a pleasant bioethical surprise. But objectionable content will alienate the very audience sure to give its virtues a standing-O. Just like heaven? Hardly, though a few moments border on the divine.