Junkfood Cinema: Just Like Heaven

By  · Published on September 30th, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; 100% medically accurate. Because Salisbury has staked the reputation of his chubby little column on my abilities to pen something that will be even in the same neighborhood as his consistently hilarious musings on bad movies and bad food, I will honor him in the only way I know how – by writing about a romantic comedy that centers on a lady in a coma and the dude who loves her. You’re regretting your decision now, aren’t you, Briguy? TOO LATE. I’ve hijacked your precious little column and we’re going straight to the most glorious reaches of heaven above (with a wee detour along the way).

What’s the plan? Well, it’s the usual plan. I’m going to roast a terrible film over the coals of a hellfire, gently turning it on a devil-approved spit, and dance around all that horrific burning while the screams stretch up through eight other levels of Hell, said bad film begging for mercy and forgiveness. Then, we’re just totally going to skip Purgatory, because it’s super-boring, but then and only then will I shower the film with love, tickling it gently with little white feathers, with a brief pause to run through a sunlit meadow while a blonde lady plays a harp nearby. Then we’re all going to eat cake.

Please open the pearly gates for Just Like Heaven.

What Makes It Bad?

Just Like Heaven is not quite appallingly bad, but it is stultifyingly silly – like someone saw Ghost and thought “jeez, this would be really great if only it was funny and if Napoleon Dynamite played the Whoopi Goldberg role. And maybe if there was no crime to solve, crime is so sad. And if there was no weird crafting that would give me a boner at a later date.” Going to Color Me Mine is rough for dudes who saw Ghost when they were kids, I get that. Fortunately, Just Like Heaven features no sexy crafting scenes, so that’s an automatic point for it right there. Reese Witherspoon’s character does have a slight fixation on her coffee table, however, but I think that has less to do with her affection for fine woodworkmanship (go with it) and more with her being a Class-A OCD nightmare.

As most romantic comedies go, Just Like Heaven tracks the relationship between two equally damaged people. In this case, however, Witherspoon’s Elizabeth is physically damaged (she’s in a coma after a bad car wreck) and Mark Ruffalo’s David is emotionally damaged (he’s in, for lack of a better term, a feelings coma). In case you missed it, she’s in a coma – she’s not dead. There’s no heaven involved, nor angels, just a pun-y little title that gets introduced by way of a truly bad cover of The Cure’s song of the same name. But we don’t quite know all of that right off the bat – we know that Elizabeth is a workaholic doc who gets slammed by a big rig, and we know that David is a sadsack who trolls for sublets based on how comfy their couches are to his sadsack ass. It’s a comedy about comas. It’s a coma-dy.

And we do know that David can somehow see Elizabeth – even when no one else can. Whatever happened to Elizabeth on that rainy night, her apartment is now up for grabs, and David moves right in. And then Elizabeth moves in on him. Is she a ghost protecting her abode? Has David finally gone crazy after watching too much bad TV and drinking too many Budweisers? Why am I beating around the bush on this, considering I’ve already revealed what’s really going on with ol’ Lizzie? The girl is in a coma, and David is either a total nutbag who has started seeing things (and talking to them in public), or he’s the only one who can see her “spirit” and is thus the only person who can help her figure out who she is so that she can figure out what happened to her. You know where this is going, right? They fall in love. Of course they do. We don’t really need to go much further with this.

Because the film relies entirely on a conceit that is, ooh, well, let’s put it delicately, ridiculous, it’s also infused with a very weird and seemingly necessary sense of magic. Most of the magic consists of wind and some tinkly score and Napoleon Dynamite, but still – magic. Ugh. As if most rom-coms weren’t hard enough to swallow already, now we need to add magic into the mix. Isn’t the magic between two people who genuinely feel for each other enough? Yeah, guess not, that’s no good for a concept comedy.

Just Like Heaven pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to the levels of ludicrous it’s prepared to go to in service to its insane plot. Body-snatching, a very loose sense of medical procedures, a pick-and-choose view of spirituality, Mark Ruffalo crying a lot, a whole side plot about rooftops gardens, people touching spirits, a cheeseball “twist” ending, it’s all there, with most of it set to some of the worst covers of popular pop jams imaginable. If this is what Heaven is like, send me straight down.

Why I Love It!

I’ve long believed in something I call “The Spinning Wheel of Romantic Comedy Casting…of Death!” (I added the “…of Death!” for pizzazz). Some rom-com pairings are so captivatingly wrong-headed that I am convinced that all casting directors are issued a giant, spinning prize wheel (“…of Death!”) that is outfitted with the names of a male lead and a female lead (well, maybe there are two wheels, one with ladies and one with dudes, or maybe it’s more like a dart game? I haven’t quite worked out the logistics on this one, but death is definitely involved). In any case, that wheel gets spun and whomsoever pops up on it gets cast as the leads in whatever romantic comedy is being cast at the time. This is literally the only reason why Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore were paired up in Music & Lyrics. Sometimes, the Spinning Wheel rolls right off its pedestal (it’s cheaply made), and that’s when people just use a pair they’ve used before, shrugging all the way to the bank (“what can I say, people just love these two together!”).

This is all a very long way of saying that obviously the Spinning Wheel was used to pair up Witherspoon and Ruffalo, but this time around, the Wheel did a fine job and its work resulted in an unexpectedly solid pairing. Witherspoon is all tight and type-A and nutty and busy and really kind of sad, and Ruffalo is like a big smooshy puppy who just wants to lie on your couch and drink coffee and maybe talk about his feelings. Don’t you want to talk about your feelings with Mark Ruffalo? Sigh. I do. Witherspoon and Ruffalo are just lovely together, and despite how balls-out stupid the plot is, they make it not only tolerable, but really just quite sweet.

Also, the film really goes for it in the most bizarre ways possible – this is a film that features Napoleon Dynamite (I know he has a real name) as a spirit medium and a hugely overt reference to the Ghostbusters as the key elements to the entire otherworldly aspect that’s supposed to be central to the plot. There’s also the crowd of wackos that surround Elizabeth and David – David’s wiseass (and wise) best friend (Donal Logue), Elizabeth’s unhinged older sister (Dina Waters), and the other doctor competing for Elizabeth’s job (Ben Shenkman, as a dude so set on getting the position that he essentially tries to kill Lizzie, so much for the Hippocratic Oath). And no in-depth discussion of Just Like Heaven (of which I suspect this might be the first one) would be complete without a massive shout-out to Ivana Milicevic as Elizabeth and David’s dumb-bunny neighbor, Katrina, a character who manages to issue amusing thoughts on sexuality, politics, tattoos, linguistics, and psychology in a swift three-minute sequence. Any film that features a character pantomiming a telephone conversation with bin Laden that features the line, “hello, Osama, Communism is so over, like give your people toilet paper” wins all of the points in my book.

And if we’re going to get deep for a minute, it’s totally conceivable that, for all its fluff, Just Like Heaven really does have something important to say about love itself. Just Like Heaven works under the theory that love is a transformative experience, so much so that true communication between people who cherish each other exists on a realm that other people cannot even touch (or, as it were, see). Of course, the film also assumes that said true love can only blossom from two people who hate each other on sight. It’s banter and sexual tension for dum-dums, which is why the same piece o’ plotline is present in just about every big studio romantic comedy you’re likely to catch in a theater near you. But it’s nice in Just Like Heaven! It’s sweet! Come on, guys, it’s a coma-dy!

Bad romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, throwaway outings with no real heart. Just Like Heaven doesn’t even care about morals when they get in the way of true love (see: body-snatching, no, really body-snatching for love). That’s stick-to-your-ribs schlock.

Junkfood Pairing: Angel Food Cake

Despite its title, Just Like Heaven isn’t even really about a ghost, and since there’s no food named for workaholics in an accident-induced healing sleep (trust me, I tried to find a recipe for coma cookies, they don’t exist), we’re just going to keep right on chugging with all the heavenly mumbo jumbo. Angel food cake! It’s supposedly healthy cake (your guess is as good as mine on who decided that one), so go ahead and toss some ice cream and whipped stuff and hot fudge syrup on it and go eat it on your rooftop garden and think about how good it is to be alive. Or something.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.