Film 9: Just Like Heaven (2004)
Falling in love: what the hell. It’s all this stuff happening at once, and some of it you’re hyperaware of, and some of it you have no idea about at all. There’s the attraction and the chemistry and the sex, and the anticipation and the excitement and the disappointment, and the friendship and the happiness and the almost excruciating joy of it all, and the scariness and the insecurity and the sadness and the hope and the fear and all this stuff is happening all at once on, like, every single level while you’re still going about the entire rest of your life? It’s fucking unbelievable. And, my god, the very idea that someone could fake all that? That is nuts.
It’s beyond preposterous to think about faking falling in love – not just being attracted to someone, but actually falling madly in love with that person. And yet the movie industry does it all the time. They make us believe to total strangers are falling in love with each other, for the 90-odd minutes they’re on screen during your standard rom com, all the time! It’s amazing. I can understand faking blowing shit up onscreen, but I can hardly wrap my head around the idea that people can act well enough to make audiences believe that two people who are not falling in love are falling in love.
Why is that so hard for me to believe? Well, in the end, the issue is that rom coms are a) meant to take place in a real and relatable version of the real world, and b) are 100% reliant on the audience swallowing that two people have just fallen in love. Which, in case you’ve forgotten, is totally ludicrous.
So let’s take a look at two different rom coms and see what’s what. (Spoilers)
In Just like Heaven, Reese Witherspoon’s overworked doctor character, Elizabeth, gets hit by a car and winds up in a coma. Her family sublets her home (an only-in-a-rom-com-style apartment in San Francisco, overlooking the Bay and with a rooftop terrace, which, not in a million fucking years) to Mark Ruffalo’s sad-sack landscape architect, David. David, we learn, has been widowed for two years and is living mostly in his own head (and subsisting only on Doritos and beer – for two years! – and yet somehow still looks like Mark Ruffalo, which once again, not in a million fucking years.) Anyway, Elizabeth haunts the apartment trying to get him to use a coaster and stuff, and David finds new purpose in sprinting around San Francisco trying to first exorcise her and later figure out what happened to her. They fall in love, she wakes from her coma (after he tries to steal her body from the hospital, which, do I even need to say it?), and ultimately they wind up kissing on her not-in-a-million-fucking-years rooftop garden in San Francisco overlooking the Bay.
In Friends with Kids, best friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed), agree to have a child together, despite not being in a romantic relationship. Their reasoning is that marriage ruins romance and kids, and they want both – just not with each other. So… they have a kid together and keep dating other people. Happily, their friends all think they’re totally fucking insane and are reasonably upfront about it. Less happily, it doesn’t really work out; Julie is, of course, actually in love with Jason and thinks of him and their child as her family, which makes his horndog asshole character kind of a problem. Ultimately she cuts him out of her life, forcing Jason to realize that he loves her romantically as well as, uh, friendshipilly.
Both films have some com though they both fail in rom: in Just Like Heaven, we see that Witherspoon is a rom com staple for good reason, and Ruffalo reveals an unsuspected flair for physical comedy. Friends with Kids features a stellar cast of Aptow-generation comedians: Maya Rudolph, Kristin Wiig, Jon Hamm, Chris O’Dowd, and Adam Scott are all spectacular and have an easy camaraderie that gives the film more warmth than it might otherwise own.
But only one can make any real claim towards romance – Just Like Heaven – and I’m afraid it does so pretty flimsily. Despite the chemistry between the actors, the actual romance is let down by the fact that there’s nothing at all real-world relatable about the story. Beyond the insane apartment and the ‘this would get you sent to prison in a second’ coma-patient-heist, these two characters literally have no one and nothing else in their lives. Elizabeth has a sister; David has a (shady) friend; that’s it. The film opens with Elizabeth 24 hours into a 26.5 hour shift, which is apparently a regular occurrence for her, and David just sits on a couch all day and mopes about his dead wife. Like, how is he even able to afford his not-in-a-million-fucking-years sublet? Was landscape architecture so profitable that he’s able to not do anything at all for two fucking years and still afford to live in San Francisco?
(San Francisco is really expensive, you guys.)
Friends with Kids, on the other hand, is extremely real-world relatable, and that’s primarily down to the easy chemistry between the six main characters. That said, Friends with Kids isn’t remotely romantic; Scott does the best that he can with his character, but the film is failed by the fact that Jason is a selfish asshole. His climactic realization that he’s actually in romantic love with Julie, as well as, shall we say, in friend-love with her, is told, not shown: all we get is an abrupt about-face where he realizes he is actually attracted to her, though he’s spent most of the film explaining to her that he isn’t attracted to her. And he phrases this epiphany by telling her that he wants to ‘fuck the shit out of’ her and that’s… the end. Seriously. They fall into bed and the film ends.
Friends with Kids is the bolder of the two films by a wide margin; it is actually trying to say something meaningful about friendship and romance and love and family, and how family and friendship aren’t and shouldn’t be defined in rigorous (rom com) terms. But it’s almost too ambitious; Westfeldt’s script works contains some real insight into what it means to fall into and out of (all kinds of ) love, but does so at the expense of its characters, making the abrupt conclusion ring hollow. Just Like Heaven is a much more traditional rom com, but falls short of the mark because it isn’t ambitious enough. The actors are strong and comfortable in their roles, but there’s simply not enough beyond them to make them and their world believable. Both Elizabeth and David can be boiled down to single-line descriptions,* making their coming together as meaningless as it is inevitable. They’re too simple, where Jason and Julie aren’t simple enough. In the one, there’s no reason why David and Elizabeth shouldn’t fall in love because there’s literally nothing else going on. Whereas, in the other, we don’t get to go on Jason’s journey with him as he realizes he loves Julie; he just goes from thinking he doesn’t to thinking he does. The end.
So, getting back to my initial rom com success formula: Just Like Heaven fails the real-world test, dependent as it is on the audience not spending even a moment inside the lives of its characters. Friends with Kids fails the falling in love test, because while we see that the two characters love each other as friends, we never ever see Jason actually fall in love with Julie romantically. I suppose the argument could be made that he always was, but we don’t even get to see him realize that. We’re just told it happens. (end spoilers)
Ultimately, the advantage must go to Friends with Kids, for being the more interesting and more ambitious film, despite its imperfections. A decade on, the only reason to give Just Like Heaven even a second thought is for Ruffalo’s performance, which suggests the depths of anger and sadness that made him such a revelation as Bruce Banner.
*Actually, they can be boiled down to single word descriptions: ‘widower’ and ‘type-A.’