There's something innately touching about Just Like Heaven, a romantic comedy about the relationship between a young female spirit and the sad-sack bachelor who's occupied her newly vacated San Francisco apartment. She's a workaholic doctor who had no time to enjoy life's pleasures; he's a mopey widower who can't get over his wife's death two years earlier. They're both lonely and need companionship, but they can't touch each other, and there's no guarantee that the ethereal forces that have temporarily animated her won't just whisk her away at any moment. If only the ghost of Krzysztof Kieslowski could have been summoned to direct, the film might have been a strange, moving portrait of spiritual connection, but director Mark Waters tries to recapture the metaphysical magic of his Freaky Friday remake, and the material doesn't cooperate.
Part of the problem is Mark Ruffalo, whose tortured sensitivity in You Can Count On Me and We Don't Live Here Anymore made him seem like Marlon Brando's heir apparent, not Will Smith's. Here, as in 13 Going On 30, Hollywood has tried to re-imagine him as its generic hunk of the week, but his timing isn't calibrated for silly disposable comic hijinks, and Just Like Heaven saddles him with plenty of them. The equally gifted Reese Witherspoon has more range, but if she continues punching under her weight class, that range will be easy to forget. Witherspoon stars as a committed hospital doctor who gets into a car crash after working her latest 24-hour shift. Though banished to the spiritual realm, she's slow to realize her fate, and thus understandably ticked to find Ruffalo has moved into her apartment. Once the two get their bickering out of the way, Ruffalo helps Witherspoon piece together her identity, and she in turn helps coax him out of his shell.
It takes an inordinately long time for Witherspoon to realize she's dead, and the filmmakers' labored attempts to draw comedy from her obliviousness have the sweaty desperation of a Saturday Night Live sketch. If there's a gag that's been played out in other ghost comedies, Just Like Heaven has no qualms about stealing it: The repeated shots of Ruffalo talking into thin air like a crazy person, the various religious and secular attempts at ghostbusting, the obligatory All Of Me scene in which a foreign spirit invades a living body. And yet, when the laugh-switch is abruptly turned off and things get serious, the two leads have an instant chemistry that runs surprisingly deep. Too bad the filmmakers have made the wrong movie out of these actors, these characters, and this story.