Chances Are (1989)

27 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Chances Are” is a movie that, at first, doesn’t seem too original and sort of doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be, but then finds its footing soon enough and develops into a sweet, funny, lighthearted romance with a fantasy element that is crucial to settling fresh relationships put into the story. That element is reincarnation, which is used as a mind-swap situation as one of the film’s two main characters suddenly has memories of his past lifetime. See if you can follow…

The movie has its somewhat weak setup in which we meet a young married couple—Louie, played by Christopher McDonald, and Corinne, played by Cybill Shepherd. Shortly, Louie is killed in an accident and then, he finds himself in the same heaven that is seen in countless other movies. You know, the kind of Movie Heaven where there is smoke all around, everyone wears white suits, and there seems to be a wide-open space with a lot of people wandering around. These people are in line to be reincarnated. Louie is in such a hurry to get back to Earth that he runs off without getting his injection that apparently forces him forget his previous life when he enters his next life.

That’s an odd start and you’re not sure where “Chances Are” is gong to go from there.

Fade to 23 years later, when we see that Corinne is still adjusting to the death of her husband. She raises her daughter Miranda (Mary Stuart Masterson) and never remarries. She doesn’t even notice that the family’s best friend Philip (Ryan O’Neal) has always been in love with Corinne and even briefly told Louie, on their wedding day, about his feelings for her. She still has her love for Louie in her heart and is totally oblivious to see Philip’s true feelings for her.

But more importantly, we get an introduction to a 23-year-old Yale graduate named Alex Finch (Robert Downey, Jr.), who befriends Miranda and Philip and is brought home for dinner. This is when the movie starts to kick in—we learn, if we didn’t already, that Alex is Louie reincarnated. When Alex arrives at the house, he immediately begins to remember who he used to be, and he definitely remembers Corinne. This leads to an awkward but funny scene in which Alex freaks out at the dinner table.

Now, at the thirty-minute mark, the movie has really begun. Everything earlier was just buildup to introduce the characters. Maybe not much else about the plot should be said, but the movie has fun with the many implications and paradoxes. Miranda has a crush on Alex and the feeling is somewhat mutual, but if Alex is Corinne’s husband Louie reincarnated, then Alex could technically be dating his own daughter. Then, there’s the plot point in which Alex tries to convince Corinne who he really is. Then, there’s the plot point about Philip’s feelings for Corinne and how Alex reacts to them. There’s more fresh material (and fresh relationships) in the screenplay for “Chances Are,” written by Perry and Randy Howze, the writer duo who also wrote 1988’s “Mystic Pizza.” They, along with director Emile Ardonlino, take certain plot elements that are not particularly original (heaven/reincarnation/mind swap) and turn the story into something special.

The actors play this material with dedication and credibility. Cybill Shepherd is convincing as the widow who doesn’t know how to react to this strange young man, who could be her reincarnated dead husband. Ryan O’Neal and Mary Stuart Masterson are fine in their roles. But the real star is Robert Downey, Jr. His is the most crucial role—if he doesn’t bring weight and plausibility to his role, it wouldn’t be easy to follow the story, or believe it, for that matter. But Downey, Jr. pulls it off with a convincing performance.

“Chances Are” is a surprisingly effective film. It shows that artistry can redeem any subject matter. Credit the director and writers for adding lighthearted romance and humor into the mix, and also credit the actors for bringing conviction to their roles. They make the film smart and entertaining.

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