My appreciation for romantic comedies is little secret, I admit. Just Like Heaven (2005), starring Mark Ruffalo and the always adorable Reese Witherspoon, is hardly Oscar material–it’s overly sentimental and apart from Witherspoon and a scene-stealing Jon Heder, the acting ranges from flat to forgettable–but it’s funny and sweet, and has a great heart, and that’s all I really need from a movie. More than that, it is also a touching tribute to love’s power over death. My wife and I saw it for the first time this weekend and really enjoyed it.
David (Ruffalo) is a recent widower who rents a flat apparently haunted by the ghost of its previous occupant, Elizabeth (Witherspoon), a workaholic doctor none too pleased to find a lay-about has moved into her apartment. Trouble is, Elizabeth doesn’t believe she is dead, despite her inability to remember her past and a disquieting tendency to float through solid objects. For his part, Ruffalo just wants to be left alone, but after various failed attempts to exorcise the spirit (a Catholic priest comes off looking rather foolish, and there is a humorous homage to Ghost Busters) he finally finds an unlikely prophet in a book-store clerk, Darryl (Heder), who cryptically informs him that Elizabeth is not dead, but David is the one carrying his wife’s death around with him, unable to pursue life without her. After that–and some not so gentle prodding from “Lizzy”–David agrees to help discover what really happened to Lizzy, and the two inevitably fall in love along the way.
The film explores a number of my favorite themes, including faith and spirituality, and of course the victory of love over death. The premise is overtly spiritual, in the sense that Elizabeth’s spirit–her soul or self–clearly cannot be reduced to her physical body. She lives and moves and speaks quite apart from her body, though how she does so is never really clear. That said, her body is by no means irrelevant, and in fact David will eventually risk his own future to save her body for the sake of her soul.
There is an emphasis throughout on the importance of touch. As Lizzy tells David–in a nice scene that quietly subverts the sex-as-pinnacle-and-proof-of-love trope–“I think if you could ever really touch me, I might wake up from all of this.” It isn’t enough to be a soul without a body; Lizzy needs to be resurrected–even if only figuratively–body and soul reunited. Lizzy is more than a body, but she is not less than a body. Her mind is more than her brain, but her brain is not disposable, and she cannot truly be herself without it. She needs, in N.T. Wright’s words, “life after life after death.”
There is also a strong sense of destiny or providence in the film, as these two are driven together despite their own knowledge or intentions (as when an ad for the apartment keeps blowing back at David despite his attempts to get rid of it), and in the end we learn that these two have much closer ties than they ever realized. As Darryl notes, the right question is not “What happened to her?” but “Why can David see her?” The answer has nothing to do with abstract speculation about the nature of the afterlife, but everything to do with love, a love that goes beyond what they could ever fully understand or grasp.
There is thus a strong emphasis on belief in the film. For obvious reasons, no one believes David is really talking to Elizabeth. Those he dares tell think he’s lost his mind, and his actions don’t exactly allay their suspicions. Of course, we know (at least eventually) that he is not crazy, but his belief certainly leads him to take some crazy risks. This is not a purely intellectual faith, but faith as courage, belief that leads to action, even rash action, for the sake of another. This happens first–in a hilarious scene–when he follows Lizzy’s medical advice to save a man who collapses in a restaurant. It happens again when David tells Lizzy’s sister his secret, but it happens most of all at the climax of the film, when David risks everything to save Lizzy herself. This is the kind of faith that makes the cautious and skeptical cringe, but driven by love, it brings life out of death.