Caution: Plot spoiler ahead.
Show me how you do that trick.
The one that makes me scream she said.
The one that makes me laugh she said.
And threw her arms around my neck.
Show me how you do it.
—The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”
Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) works too hard. A doctor at a San Francisco hospital, she spends her 23-hour days encouraging her patients, making spot-on diagnoses with mere glances at charts, drinking crappy coffee from the break room machine, and, at the start of Just Like Heaven, striding through hallways under Katie Melua’s poppy cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Everything is neat, well-timed, and brightly colored.
Because Elizabeth inhabits a romantic comedy, her frantic pace and lonely life cannot continue. Typically, this means she will meet the man of her dreams, even if she doesn’t know that’s what’s missing. And that does happen here, except first her life stops, literally, when, en route to a blind date arranged by her sister Abby (Dina Spybey), she slams into a truck. Screech, boom, screen goes white.
Cut to the next stage of Elizabeth’s existence, which begins with her absence. Her old (and quite spectacular) apartment, is rented by a cute, lonely landscape designer David (Mark Ruffalo). He mopes about for a few minutes, drinking beer on the couch while watching old wedding videos (translation: he’s lost someone dear), his good friend, a shrink named Jack (affable Donal Logue), advises that he “get out” and “move on.” And still, David seems stuck, until he meets Elizabeth, who pops into his apartment one night, claiming that it’s hers.
Before you can say “Ghost,” she’s figuring out the limits of her material experience, that is, walking through walls and doors, standing solid on floors and lying across the tv table in order to sing “Tomorrow” by means of annoying David. Concerned that David is leaving cup rings on her tables, she wants him out of her apartment, and all he knows is that it’s been rented furnished because of some vague “tragedy” in the family. Elizabeth frets over her bizarrely existential dilemma (“When I’m not with you, it’s like I don’t exist”), then takes a kind of medical charge of her story, as she can’t remember what happened to her or why she feels so odd. She decides that she needs to figure out her status vis-à-vis life and death, by uncovering her recent past and perhaps most importantly, why she never changes her new, stylishly black and red outfit.
If the logic of Elizabeth’s being is elusive, David’s coping strategies are off the everyday charts, though well within the frameworks of ghosty romances and comedies. On one level, he’s the ideal guy: sensitive, a little sad, and not at all into lusting after women, even when his lovely neighbor, Katrina (Ivana Milicevic)—whose airheadedness and unworthiness are marked by her declaration that “Osama” is a communist—tries seducing him.
Still, David has to go through some difficulties that show his own worthiness for Lizzy. First, Jack convinces him that a night out will help him with this new problem (“I’m seeing someone,” David confides, “who’s not there”); they head to a local bar, where Elizabeth—whom David calls Lizzy, hinting at the carefree sweet thing who might reside inside her hyper-competent self—actually jumps inside his body, forcing him to put down his drink, gyrate outlandishly, feel dreadfully embarrassed in front of a couple of girls and Jack, then twirl out the door in a Steve-Martin-esque spasm—because, you know, it’s not healthy to be in a bar. And Lizzy’s all into health.
When this physical respite doesn’t work out, David heads to the guy who will become his new confidant, the local occult bookstore clerk, Darryl (Jon Heder reprising his Napoleon Dynamite affect, slightly toned down and without the geeky wig). He hands over some spell books, which David dutifully takes home as instructionals in chanting and spirits-be-gone-ing, but to no avail. When Darryl comes by to get a feel for the spirit (no one can see Lizzy but David), he explains, however obliquely, the trouble: she’s a very “alive” spirit, that is, she’s “not dead.”
So begins the film’s awkward way back from its seeming (and seemingly insurmountable) premise, that David has fallen in love with a dead girl. Now Just Like Heaven turns into something more peculiar, a Sleeping Beauty story refashioned to combine upbeat rom-com conventions and ER-lite medical-ethical dilemmas, the movie reveals that Lizzy’s not quite dead, but rather in a coma for three months. This explains some of the film’s tentativeness concerning Lizzy’s physicality and lack thereof, but also potentially resituates its emotional center. For now the film is rightfully not so much about David and Lizzy’s adorable romance, and much more about Lizzy’s sister Abby’s wrenching emotional dilemma: should she pull the life-support plug on her sister after three months of coma? It’s a preposterous idea to cram into a romance.
The plot antics that lead to answering this question are convoluted, involving a doctor at the hospital (Ben Shenkman), who was competing for Lizzy’s position and now wants her condition resolved once and for all, pushing Abby to sign papers to have her removed from life support. And so the film stumbles into dense ethical, only marginally comic territory, as it starts making a case for life support for the vegetative Lizzy. You know she’s alive, really, that she should be with David, and that they’re in a romantic comedy, so you want the happy ending. But it’s a rather complicated way to get to it.