Over Her Dead Body

2008-02-01 (General release)

The premise of Over Her Dead Body is Eva Longoria Parker, dead. She looks fabulous, very erect, very pointy, and very, very well coiffed every moment she’s on screen, both as living human and as ghost. But Longoria Parker has a hard time playing support, being so flamboyant and so energetic and so electric. And so, when she’s off screen, the film kind of goes limp, waiting for her to reappear. And when she’s on screen, well, the action tends to swirl around her, leaving the designated lovebirds with precious little to do.

The gimmick is this: Kate (Longoria Parker) is about to be married, but she also has to die within the first few minutes of this depressingly inept romantic comedy. This means a couple of things: you have to dislike her enough so you won’t miss her, but you also have to understand why the husband-to-be, Henry (Paul Rudd), might even think about marrying her. It’s tough space in between these poles, and Kate stalks through it for about four minutes, her sundress like armor, her unmussable hair like a helmet as she harangues wedding-day workers and feigns sweetness with Henry. As soon as you’re convinced he shouldn’t be marry her, she’s killed by a falling ice sculpture, insults a short-tempered angel in heaven (“Shut up, you’re dead!”), and is left to her own devices as to how to finish her unfinished business on earth so she can pass over. Where oh where is Jennifer Love Hewitt when you need her?

The movie cuts to the nice girl who will struggle mightily to be Henry’s right choice, Ashley (Lake Bell, who was, by the way, quite excellent during the short-lived TV series Surface). Henry arrives on her doorstep at the urging of his plot device of a sister Chloe (Lindsay Sloane), because, apparently, a boy would never initiate such a harebrained scheme. They hit it off, Kate catches wind of it, and soon she’s haranguing Ashley — whose work as a psychic was previously loosey-goosey intuiting and garden-variety hand-holding, not quite a scam, but not talking to the dead directly, either. “When it works, it really does make people happy,” she chirps, as if to show that she’s a nice person despite the lies that make up the business when it doesn’t “work.” She does it because she does believe, in spirits, in happy endings, and in heaven. “Wouldn’t it be a sad and helpless world,” she asks skeptical Henry, if there was no such place? He smiles and nods, and you know he should be making his exit — now.

For all her believing, Ashley is shocked to see Kate, who pretends to be a customer and then, when Ashley wonders at her sudden inability to make the session “work,” announces herself as an angry spirit who speaks in multiple low-and-odious voices like the demon in The Exorcist: “You speak falsely for the dead!” Kate says, and then, to prove she’s for real, starts listing Ashley’s secrets: “We saw you drop the tray of meatballs last night and still serve them; we saw what you did in the shower last night and it’s nothing to be ashamed of but we still saw.” (It’s even less funny in spoken form.) Suddenly, Ashley is astounded at her own powers to commune with the dead, like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.

Visible only to Ashley, Kate makes clear she disapproves of her burgeoning romance with Henry (a romance rendered in tedious montages). This sets up a petty, increasingly hysterical contest between the women (when Ashley calls in a priest to conduct an exorcism, Kate one-ups with egregious fart-noises during a Henry-Ashley date). The girls’ crude and matching connivings suggest that Ashley isn’t so different from Kate as she might appear (being klutzy and cute and mussy-haired). It could be that Henry deserves either or both of them, in which case, but the film suggests repeatedly that he’s an earnest, even-keeled fellow, a veterinarian by trade, whose sudden immersion in a whirlwind of cat-fighting leaves him a little confused and eventually puppy-doggily hurt, when he believes he’s been hoodwinked.

But just when the movie looks like it’s making the boy the victim of silly girls, it slips in a very, very strange boy-related plot turn, concerning Ashley’s gay best friend Dan (Jason Biggs) also disapproves of the match, for his own reasons (a plot point that is even sillier than the visit to the psychic). He happens also to be Ashley’s employee, as she’s a caterer until the psychic business begins to pay rent; this means he appears repeatedly in Ashley’s kitchen, oohing and ahhing at her formidable cooking skills, gushing that he loves to learn from her and offering advice in an adorably snarky, gay-best-friendy way. “You’re my friend. You’re gay. You’re my gay friend,” declares Ashley, “I love having a gay friend to talk to.” Coming at a crisis point (yet another deception revealed), the line makes you think Ashley somehow knows she’s a character in a dreadful formulaic romantic comedy but doesn’t know how to get out.

Here, as it stumbles in and out of its gay-best-friend subplot, the film pretty much collapses. The ostensible joke that’s also an ostensible lesson about dishonesty only underscores the broadly conceived foolishness that has preceded. As feelings are hurt and motivations are confused, with Kate hovering quite literally over the fallout, Over Her Dead Body makes one wrong choice after another, coupling selfish women and desperate men as if they’re meant for one another.

RATING 2 / 10