September 16, 2005 5:05am EST
The socially inept Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon) is a workaholic doctor who never leaves the hospital. Her married sister Abby (Dina Waters) tries in vain to set up with a good man to no avail. But fate is about to intervene. On her way home from a long shift Elizabeth gets into a head-on collision with a semi-truck and suddenly the lines between life and death are blurred. Jumping forward we meet David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) a guy wallowing in self-pity from the death of his wife two years earlier who to find some solitude moves into a fabulous furnished apartment. What he doesn't know is the previous tenant hasn't left not really. That's right it was Elizabeth's apartment and for whatever reason (seriously they don't entirely explain it) Elizabeth--or her spirit I guess--hasn't grasped the idea that she is in well limbo. Only David can see her of course as she yells at him for leaving sweat rings on the coffee table but Elizabeth eventually grows on him. She elicits his help in finding out what happened to her and with a little help from the eccentric Darryl (Jon Heder) a bookstore employee who has the gift for sensing spirits David and Elizabeth find that heaven and earth are not really that far apart.
As our romantic pair Witherspoon and Ruffalo do an adequate job adhering to the staid romantic comedy formula. Witherspoon is one of the more consistent comedic actresses these days and has the sweet but controlling ingénue routine down to a science. But it may be time for her to take a break from the standard fare and head back to the indies getting down and dirty like she did in Election. Ruffalo does a pretty impressive job for his second time as the romantic lead. As he did with 13 Going on 30 Ruffalo at least tries to add some quirky twists to a boring character. Still he should also probably stick to showcasing his dramatic acting talent in cool indies much like he did in You Can Count on Me. It's Heaven's side characters who have all the fun. Waters (The Haunted Mansion) does a nice turn as the caring sister who's own hectic life as a mother of two rambunctious kids always seems to interfere with what she's doing. Donal Logue (TV's Grounded For Life) as David's therapist best friend too has a fun time yuking it up. But the real standout in an otherwise dull universe is Napoleon Dynamite himself Jon Heder in his second feature film. He's still a geek but at least this time he's a mystical one who knows a thing or two about wandering spirits. Of course he also gets the best lines: "I'm 99.9 percent parched here. I need a cola." I'm going to use that one from now on.
As the director of the satirical Mean Girls and the cutesy Freaky Friday Mark Waters may be out of his element with an out and out romantic comedy. The initial idea about a women whose stuck in the spirit world until she finds the true love she never sought after in life is somewhat intriguing. But rather than play with that the film just ends up your standard romantic comedy while also stealing from other films such as Ghost and The Sixth Sense. Just Like Heaven also has some serious logistical flaws. For example seeing how Elizabeth is supposed to be a ghost--that she can't touch anything tangible and can walk through walls tables and just about anything else--she is later seen laying on top of a table. It doesn't make sense as to how she can walk through it at one moment and be on it the next. And the fact you are paying attention to these inconsistencies means you just aren't caring that much about the rest of the film.
"Hey Hey Hey--it's Fat Albert!" From the very first introductory line--voiced by Albert (Kenan Thompson) himself--you cringe just a little. It's like watching a good friend attempt a tough impersonation you hope he can pull off. The story hews close to what the cartoon
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was always all about--a goofy gaggle of African-American kids making the best of growing up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. No matter what the trouble--runaways drug use juvenile delinquency--they managed to find a way to solve everyone's problems and bookend each episode with the contagiously upbeat "Na na na--gonna have a good time! Hey hey hey!" The same goes here--only in a modern twist the problem to solve happens to be in the "real world." Doris (Kyla Pratt) a shy and lonely teenager has a rough day at school where she learned she wasn't invited to a big party. She comes home to watch Fat Albert on TV Land and a stray teardrop hits the remote control creating a magical portal through which the animated Fat Albert and gang decide to jump. Scaring the heck out of the bewildered Doris the guys stumble out of the television set and take to their realistic surroundings and mission quite quickly. In short order they set about trying to find Doris some new friends much to her embarrassed chagrin and along the way they try to make sense of modern day life with its perplexing cell phones pull-top cans and rap music. Yet the more time they spend in the real world the more they fade away their clothes becomes more washed out and eventually they even seem transparent.
Thompson (Saturday Night Live) does as good a job as could be expected embodying a classic cartoon character that has been etched into our minds for decades known mainly for the booming voice pounding footsteps and wide red-shirted girth. He also has the unenviable task of imbuing the character within the actual storyline (not to mention sharing screen time with Bill Cosby himself who quickly but effectively intones the classic phrase in a standout cameo). In the real world Fat Albert falls in love; not with Doris the girl he's helping but her older sister Lauri (Dania Ramirez) who in turn has taken a shine to this selfless big lug. Thompson is also required to sing and dance and try his hand at rap (but we'll skip the part in which Albert races a malevolent track star who's jealous of his appeal--it's so out of place and unnecessarily fake-looking that it's best forgotten). Kyla Pratt also does a good job holding her own playing the young Doris as one part hopeful one part incredulous. The rest of the "Cosby kids" blend in with one another if not for their single quirk or two: Jermaine Williams as the unintelligible Mushmouth; Keith D. Robinson as Bill the level-headed one (essentially the young Bill Cosby); Alphonso McAuley as Bucky with his protruding big teeth; Aaron A. Frazier as Old Weird Harold tall with the big 'fro and Marques B. Houston; as Dumb Donald most of his face covered by a pulled down ski-cap with eye holes.
Already a lot has been said about Fat Albert's sitcom-like feel which may in fact be appropriate given the source material but meandering between the two plotlines the story nevertheless feels as padded as Thompson's suit. Director Joel Zwick's (My Big
Fat Greek Wedding) staging style and attitude are clearly geared toward kids who likely won't miss the lack of real wit in the bickering exchanges between the gang but who may not get the references including the opening animation styled just like the mid-1970s show. This movie's target audience has barely even heard of Theo and Rudy Huxtable let alone Weird Harold Mush Mouth and Dumb Donald. In the cartoon Albert and the Cosby kids populated an urban world of fire hydrants streetlamps and garbage dumps that wasn't without a certain charm. The problem is that charm of the original doesn't work within the context of life today. Just slapping this colorful cast of characters into music video dance scenes doesn't do the job. One notable exception to the often unengaging quality of the movie is a brief visit Fat Albert makes to the real Bill Cosby. The legendary performer softens his curmudgeonly ways and puts forth a possible explanation for Albert's manifestation in reality tying it in with the character's origin in his own head. It's an interesting tidbit with a small payoff at the end.