6 February 2008 | robb_772
Thoroughly charming afterlife comedy
After appearing the rare Mike Nichols misstep THE FORTUNE (1975), it took Beatty three long years to return to the screen with the genteel comedy/fantasy HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978). In addition to essaying the lead role, Beatty also made his debut in the director's chair, with the assistance of legendary comedy writer Buck Henry (who also plays a supporting role in the film). A remake of 1941 semi-classic HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, HEAVEN CAN WAIT may not surpass the delightful whimsy of the original classic, but it emerges as somewhat of a modern classic in it's own right. The film was an instant hit with both critics and audiences, was nominated for an astounding 9 Oscars including "Best Picture," and remains a magical film that is almost impossible not to love.
Beatty not only proves himself to be a perfectly competent film director, and the picture also provides the star with one of his best roles as an actor. Beatty's good-natured football player Joe is the exact type of lovable stud that you cannot help but fall for. The film's screenplay takes Joe from earth to heaven and to back to earth again through an assortment of various bodies, and Beatty's easygoing charisma holds it all together and keeps viewers involved in the story and fixated on the screen. This is a star performance if there ever was one, and Beatty has rarely been more likable.
The rest of the cast is particularly winning. The still silver-tongued James Mason (in a part originally offered to the retired Cary Grant) as the heavenly Mr. Jordan and the endearing gruff Jack Warden are perfect as father figure-types for Beatty's Joe, and Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon are absolutely terrific as the film's pair of villains. The only performer missing the boat is a blah Julie Christie, who is pleasant but unconvincing in the sadly underwritten role of the ecologist love interest of the body Beatty has temporarily inherited. It seems as though the creators thought dressing Christie in frumpy wardrobe and frizzy hairstyle was enough to give the character depth, but all they succeeded in was making a natural beauty look rather hideous.
The film is a joyous, comedic piece of whimsy that manages to incorporate slapstick comedy, romance, fantasy, and even an underdog sports story without ever feeling bloated or disjointed. The true emotional highpoint comes with Mr. Jordan's farewell to Joe, as well as Max failing to recognize him in his new body. The rather shallow development of Christie's character leaves the film's THE WAY WE WERE-like finale ringing a bit hollow, but it's still an effectively bittersweet coda nonetheless. This film launched a major revival of whimsical comedies that remained popular until the late-eighties, and it easily remains the best effort of this revival.