Haunting Romance

Despite a hackneyed-sounding premise, 'Just Like Heaven' is a pleasant surprise

At first glance, Just Like Heaven looks like hackneyed crap. Although Reese Witherspoon is a fine actress, her commercial fare tends to lean toward the gushy side, and this film's premise, about a ghost haunting a dude (Mark Ruffalo) inhabiting her former apartment, just doesn't seem promising.

Oh, the perils of preconceived notions. This movie is as sweet as they come, with charming performances from its leads and a story that, no matter how outrageous it gets, maintains a likeability that propels it forward. In a lot of ways, this movie is a bit sick in the head. I don't want to give too much away, but I'm pretty impressed with the lengths this one goes to for originality. It's morbid, in a Six Feet Under sort of way, yet is somehow light as a feather.

Elizabeth Masterson (Witherspoon, charming and understated) is a hard-working San Francisco doctor who puts her career before everything. On her way to her sister's house for a blind date, she has a head-on collision with a truck. The next time we see her, she's a ghostly apparition haunting poor David Abbott (Ruffalo, at his sad-faced best), who has recently rented her apartment and fails to use coasters. David is bothered by Elizabeth's presence at first, arranging for half-baked exorcisms and showering in his boxer shorts so she can't sneak a peek. As time passes, he starts warming up to the specter (Come on, it's Reese Witherspoon!), and the possibility that they have some sort of soulmate bond becomes apparent.

One of the great things about this film is the new twists and turns the movie's writers come up with to make Elizabeth's haunting all the more unusual. This could've been the standard The Ghost and Mrs. Muir stuff, yet it winds up going in a direction that provides for a happy ending without selling out.

Witherspoon and Ruffalo have great chemistry. Actually, they have amazing chemistry, considering that they make their pairing through this ridiculous premise totally credible and believable. I'd like to dub them the new Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but considering how much You've Got Mail sucked, I feel that would be an insult.

Some could see Just Like Heaven as just a little sick. It's not a straight-up haunting that is happening in this San Francisco apartment, and as the story unravels, it becomes apparent that something else is going on. How director Mark Waters (who did Mean Girls) manages to keep it so good-natured is a minor movie miracle.

Ruffalo is good in this sort of role. He was the boy half of the romantic comedy 13 Going on 30, which is also boasted an outrageous premise. He's such a good actor that he lends ridiculous movies like this one a sort of levity. He proves to be the perfect counterpart to Witherspoon, who finally gets the chance to do something commercial with an offbeat flair, rather than money-machine, predictable crap like Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde 2. This looks like it will be a good year for Witherspoon, who will star as June Carter Cash in the upcoming Walk the Line. In a supporting role, Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) proves he's no one-hit wonder as a medium with a laid-back approach to spirits in his presence.

I'm the first person in line when it comes to bashing cheesy romance movies. There's nothing worse than a formulaic romance full of sap. Just Like Heaven gets it right, and even manages to be somewhat of a tear jerker. It has big laughs, great performances and a gigantic heart. I consider it one of the year's most pleasant surprises.

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