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‘Just Like Heaven’ has unexpected charms

Unlike most romantic comedies, you can’t guess exactly where it’s going. By John Hartl

Predictability has been the downfall of most of this year’s romantic comedies. If you’ve guessed how things will turn out before the first reel is over, chances are that even the most ingeniously contrived obstacle course won’t keep you from looking at your watch.

Mark Waters’ “Just Like Heaven” is different. Sure, there’s not much suspense about whether its incomplete young lovers, charmingly played by Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, will somehow complete each other before 90 minutes are up. But how exactly are they going to accomplish it?

After all, she appears to be physically deceased, and he’s been emotionally dead for a couple of years. When she was alive, she was a workaholic with no time for romance. And he hasn’t been with anyone since he lost the love of his life. They seem doomed to exist in two separate worlds.

The script by Peter Tolan (“Guess Who”) and Leslie Dixon (who worked with Waters on “Freaky Friday”) sets up quite a challenge, and for the most part meets it. The movie has its schmaltzy moments, but there’s just enough edge and inventiveness to the sweet scenes to keep it from going soggy.

There’s also just enough of Witherspoon’s moody impishness and Ruffalo’s vulnerability to keep their relationship interesting. They meet cute in a lavish San Francisco apartment that she claims belongs to her. She’s incensed that he’s leaving watermarks on the mahogany while he drowns his sorrows in beer.

He’s a renter who has just moved in; she insists he’s trespassing. But at least he’s solid, and demonstrably alive. Her wispier identity is something of a mystery to him as well as to her. Only gradually does it dawn on her that she once worked at a hospital where she’d been given a promotion just before she apparently ceased to exist.

It also takes awhile for them to realize that only he can see or hear her, and that she has inconsistent powers. She walks through walls and her hand can’t grip a phone, yet she can toss him around a pub. He tells his best friend (Donal Logue) that he must be suffering from hallucinations, and he enlists the help of a goofy psychic bookseller (Jon Heder from “Napoleon Dynamite”) who specializes in sensing auras.

Then, just when you think you’ve got the movie pegged as a fantasy-comedy in the tradition of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” or “Blithe Spirit,” it takes an unexpected turn into Terri Schiavo territory. The entire third act deals rather seriously with questions about living wills and the ethics of prolonging life.

It also allows Ruffalo to do what he so often does best: exploring a lost soul’s desperation. During a potentially corny monologue about the things that irritated him about his previous lover, he brings such conviction to the scene that it’s easy to forget the artifice that brought the character to this point. The moment is so genuine that the movie coasts right through to its dreamy ending.