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The cozy appeal of romantic comedy Just Like Heaven
Before he became Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo was perhaps best known for indie movies and the odd whimsical rom-com. The year was 2005 and Reese Witherspoon was still a few months away from winning an Oscar for Walk The Line, and lighter love stories were still very much in her wheelhouse. Just Like Heaven does not share the same beloved legacy as 13 Going on 30 or Legally Blonde because it is not as funny or charming as either of these movies. However, it is an appealing and comforting rewatch, twisting the falling-for-a-ghost narrative with predictable but fun results.
This tale of a love that must triumph over adversity — don’t they all? — is a solid viewing option for these trying times. It doesn’t sound like much of a selling point to call something aggressively fine (it has 55% on Rotten Tomatoes), but sometimes that is the ideal movie experience, not to mention that Witherspoon and Ruffalo do sell the fantasy-infused narrative with gusto.
Based on a French novel, Elizabeth (Witherspoon) and David (Ruffalo) are polar opposites. Elizabeth is a dedicated ER physician, spending so much time at her work that her social life is nonexistent, whereas David struggles to leave the house preferring his own company to being with the living. The movie begins with Elizabeth on a monster 26-hour shift, emphasizing how she prioritizes her job over everything else. Her loneliness sets her apart from the colleagues who manage to juggle it all.
At the end of her shift, Elizabeth is told she has been awarded the attending physician position she has been busting her gut to land, but in an attempt to open up her love life she has agreed to go on a blind date that evening. On her way home from the hospital she is involved in a car accident, which suggests it is lights out for Lizzy. Her long hours at work have contributed to her crash and this is a reminder of the pressure medical professionals are under even when there isn't a pandemic.
Meanwhile, David is looking for a place to rent. The San Francisco market is notoriously expensive so it is a miracle when a flyer with a dream place sublet announcement lands directly on his face. What forces could be doing this? His biggest concern is finding a furnished apartment with the perfect couch because he doesn’t plan on moving from it. David is a social distancing king whose behavior in 2005 is a concern to his one friend, but in 2020 we all need to be more like David.
Taking a different approach to a meet-cute, Elizabeth is horrified to find David in her apartment — particularly as he has takeout containers and beer cans scattered everywhere — but disappears as quickly as she entered. Convinced he has a ghost haunting his solitude, David takes measures to exorcise this malevolent spirit, but he is plagued by a different specter from his past. His reluctance to leave his very comfy apartment — the size, view and roof access makes this a very appealing location — stems from the sudden death of his wife two years ago. A brain aneurysm killed her, and the randomness of the event and his inability to do anything to save her has led to this life of hiding away.
Elizabeth's predicament is somewhat more complicated as she is separate from her actual body. It turns out that she isn't dead but in a coma. The rules of her existence are fuzzy, much like her ability to sit in a car and lie on a bed, and yet she can't pick up a phone. Hanging out in the refrigerator to berate Dave about his choices also turns her into a buzzkill presence. She also can enter David's body, which sounds far kinkier than it is. Instead, she just wants him to drink less.
What links the pair is a shared theme of missing out on life — Elizabeth because she works too hard and David because he is still consumed by grief. Again, David's stay-at-home mantra is actually ideal for right now but in the world of the movie, people keep telling him to get out. Stay in your pajamas, Mark Ruffalo. It is a good look and I'm not just saying that because the cut of jeans in 2005 was very bad.
The antagonistic undertones are replaced by a newfound connection and while they can't physically touch each other — much like any other new relationship right now — they fall in love despite this huge obstacle. The other major bump in the road they have to overcome is the fact that Elizabeth's life support machine is going to be turned off. If you have read this far without having seen the movie, you can guess what happens next.
Another discovery cements their destined to be with each other status: David was the guy Elizabeth had been set up with on the night of the crash. Who could have seen that coming? OK, everyone could.
Love moves in mysterious ways and the pair were connected before this crash and even the blind date. In her moments of catnapping while at work, Elizabeth envisioned a beautiful heaven-like garden on her roof. David's job? A landscape architect! After she wakes from her coma, she doesn't remember him, but all it takes is for a trip to her roof to see what he has done (along with a graze of their hands) for it to all come flooding back. He has somehow designed and created the exact garden she pictured during those quieter moments at the hospital. While Elizabeth's non-corporeal rules are all over the place, nothing is more set in stone in rom-coms than the notion of kismet.
Peak mid-aughts Mark Ruffalo is, of course, a big selling point to this movie. It also ticks all the rom-com real estate dream home boxes. At the moment it is hard to watch something and not consider how it would rank as a shelter-in-place location, but Elizabeth (and David's) palatial apartment and fantasy rooftop garden score pretty highly. Just Like Heaven is incredibly predictable; nevertheless, the familiarity and warmth is a welcome change of pace, and sometimes that is all you need.