Heaven Can Wait (1978)

25 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, and Elaine May were able to take grim material and write it into a feel-good movie like “Heaven Can Wait” is beyond me, but it works. This is a sweet, lighthearted fantasy with some good laughs and sweet moments, despite most of the material having to do with death and murder.

Let me explain—the main character has died before his time and has to go back to Earth in another person’s body, so we get a montage of events for the character to choose somebody. With each turndown, there’s a death. This should be grisly, but the way it’s executed makes it funny. And when he does find a body, there’s a subplot involving people who supposed to be his assistants (one of which is his wife) that attempt to kill him. Grisly? Possibly.

Funny? Yep.

The film stars Beatty (who also co-wrote directed, along with Henry, May, and Robert Towne) as Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. He’s a chipper young fellow, is more than physically fit, and his team is headed for the Super Bowl. But while riding his bike through the Mulholland Drive tunnel, he collides with a truck and dies…or does he?

Joe finds himself at a way station in the afterlife with his guardian angel (Henry) and the mysterious Mr. Jordan (James Mason). Joe is told that he died, but he believes there’s been some sort of mistake. And he’s right—as it turns out, the angel was on his first assignment, guarding Joe, and mistook the outcome of the incident in the tunnel for Joe’s imminent death. So, Joe was taken before his time and would like to return back to Earth. However, his body has already been cremated and so he must find a new body (someone who is supposed to die, and this is where we get that montage I mentioned).

Joe finds himself in the body of millionaire industrialist Leo Farnsworth, who had just been poisoned by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and his personal secretary Tony (Charles Grodin), who also happens to be Julia’s lover. Mr. Jordan, the angel, and we (the audience) see Joe as Joe, making it easier for us to follow his character—everyone else in the movie sees Joe as Farnsworth, making for some comedic moments of confusion for them. He’s now in charge of the company, which is confusing for him already. But once he gets the gist of it, he’s able to get through to his executives through football talk. He puts an end to the pillage that seems to come through with the company.

Eventually, Joe is able to convince his long-time friend and trainer Max (Jack Warden) who he really is. So Max can help Joe get this new body into shape so he can play for the Rams (after he buys the team), and play in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, there’s a romance he develops with an environmental activist, played by Julie Christie. He likes her a lot, and the feeling becomes mutual—she hated Farnsworth’s policies and actions, but falls for Joe’s easygoingness.

“Heaven Can Wait” has a lot of fun with its story gimmicks, and provides a lot of laughs while keeping the audience ahead of the show. And like I said, there’s a great deal of cheerfulness that makes everything easier and more appealing.

The funniest parts of the movie revolve around Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin, who are absolutely hilarious as the main reactors to most of the stuff going on with Farnsworth (not knowing it’s really Joe in his body). Of course they’re surprised and confused that their murder scheme didn’t work and as Cannon freaks out and screams at the top of her lungs, Grodin must calm her down, even though Cannon doesn’t want him to cover her mouth to keep her from exclaiming loudly. And of course, they must try again to murder him swiftly when Joe makes silly decisions.

Jack Warden plays the role of Max very well and has his share of good moments as well, and the same can be said for James Mason and Buck Henry as Joe’s invisible (well, visible only to him) advisors. Warren Beatty is possibly too sincere as Joe (though he is likable for us to follow him). But Julie Christie, as appealing as she is, doesn’t do enough with the nothing role of the love interest.

The ending doesn’t work well for me. It seemed too odd and also kind of contrived. I guess it’s the obligatory happy ending, but I’m just not pleased with the resolution. Without giving it away, it just didn’t do anything for me.

“Heaven Can Wait” is a fun screwball comedy mixed with afterlife-fantasy, mixed with somewhat-macabre material.

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