For a romantic comedy to work, it has to feel authentic. No matter how contrived the plot, we have to be convinced that the couple that faces obstacles to their love should be together, and if their characters are well developed and the acting solid, we eventually want them to be together. The laughs should, ideally, flow from events that thwart their love or character flaws that they overcome by the end of the film. Humor becomes the tie that binds us to the humanity of the couple whose love lives we are supposed to care about in less than two hours; it breaks down our defenses so that we, too, can fall in love with them.
Which brings me to the radical inauthenticity of Over Her Dead Body, a romantic comedy written and directed by Jeff Lowell that is neither romantic nor particularly funny, and which suffers from an inane script, awkward pacing, and actors who have so little chemistry that they might as well be performing against green screens rather than with each other. Its humor is, to put it kindly, unsophisticated (fart jokes, slapstick, and cute animals make up most of the near-laughs), and forms the backdrop to a love story that feels like being stuck on an awkward first date. Throw in a nagging ghost and a subplot involving a gay (or is he?) friend, and viewing Over Her Dead Body becomes an exercise in masochism.
Henry (Paul Rudd) is a man in mourning for a woman he never got to marry. On his wedding day to Kate (Eva Longoria), an ice sculpture of an angel falls on her, killing her instantly. A year later, his worried sister Chloe (Lindsay Sloane) hires a psychic and part-time caterer Ashley (Lake Bell) to summon Kate’s ghost to speak to Henry about getting on with his life. When it doesn’t go as planned (Ashley isn’t a great psychic and Henry doesn’t believe in them anyway), Chloe gives Ashley the late woman’s diary behind his back. She hopes that if Ashley knows the details of Kate’s life, she can convince him she’s really speaking to Kate and deliver the message that Kate wants him to stop mourning and move on. Ashley, naturally, falls for Henry, and when sparks begin to fly between them, Kate, the ghost, returns and threatens to haunt Ashley’s days and nights if she doesn’t back off.
One of Over Her Dead Body’s biggest problems lies in the believability of the characters’ motivations. The inept direction is reinforced by the shallowness of the script, and one can hardly blame the actors for what follows. Kate, as Longoria plays her to the exaggerated hilt, is deeply unlikable, but we’re supposed to believe that the amiable and down-to-earth Henry was in love with her to the point of not being able to go on with life. (Most viewers, I suspect, will be happy the moment the Bridezilla ghost disappears from the screen, and sullen when she returns.)
Lake Bell as Ashley, Kate’s hippie-ish polar opposite, doesn’t have much to work with to convey her salt-of-the earth character. She is thrust into one absurd and random slapstick situation after another, and often left by the director just to stand there in awkwardness, a la a Farrelly Brothers comedy, dragging an unfunny moment out to the point of discomfort. In one scene, she and Henry are on a date and as she squeezes mustard onto her hot dog, it spills all over her dress. (This is what passes for hilarious in Over Her Dead Body.) In another cringe-inducing scene, Ashley and Henry go on a romantic weekend together, and as Henry unpacks in the hotel room and Ashley goes into the bathroom to change into sexy lingerie, Kate makes flatulence noises that Ashley mistakes as coming from Henry. This goes on for a seeming eternity.
In scenes meant to convey that Ashley is falling in love with Henry, the only direction Bell appears to receive is to narrow her eyes and cock her head to the side as the camera does a close-up of her face. Longoria’s Kate has a similarly unconvincing change of heart toward the end of the film, expressed by the “squint, head cock, close-up” technique of emotion production. An unfunny and unrealistic subplot involving Ashley’s supposedly gay catering partner only adds another layer of unreality to a film you wish were over almost as soon as it begins. Jason Biggs appears to be held hostage in Ashley’s kitchen as well as in this film, and even the understated and charming Rudd can’t save this mess.
It’s when Over Her Dead Body is compared to the far superior (and nearly-plagiarized) Just Like Heaven (2005), however, that its crapitude is truly revealed. Without reference to the charming Reese Witherspoon/Mark Ruffalo supernatural romantic comedy about a man who falls in love with a ghost in his apartment, Over Her Dead Body is merely a bad movie. But when one sees that Over Her Dead Body has liberally “borrowed” whole scenes and plot twists from Just Like Heaven — a woman’s violent death and subsequent return as a nagging, Type A ghost; a priest whose ministrations do not exorcise her; her ghost’s appearance in a medicine cabinet, just to name a few instances — Over Her Dead Body becomes a copy-cat inferior on top of it all. Where we immediately understand and come to like the Witherspoon and Ruffalo ghost/mortal combination, connecting with them in spite of the supernatural storyline, we never quite understand why Henry loved Kate, or why he’s now falling into the arms of Ashley. More fatally, we don’t care.