Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Not to be confused with the 1943 film of the same title–which is completely unrelated–this is of course the remake of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, later remade with Chris Rock as Down to Earth, and filling that familiar comedic role in film of the fish-out-of-water-but-in-a-land-animal’s-body (sorry, I do like contorting clichés where appropriate).

Hopefully, it gives away nothing (even if it does, this occurs within 8 minutes of the film starting) to note the essence of this plot is Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is a pro football player who has recently recovered from a knee injury and is told on his birthday by trainer Max Corkle (the always fun Jack Warden) that he is going to be starting quarterback for the L.A. Rams. He immediately goes out and continues the training regimen we’ve already seen him working hard at, and he is in an accident in a tunnel as he is biking–one that seemed, honestly, rather peculiar. There was no note of dramatic shock to it, there was no comedic or black comedic quality, it just seemed…off. At that point I was a little worried about the way the film would go from here, as Joe now wanders a waystation in the afterlife (mostly clouds, of course) as he is escorted by Buck Henry (he’s just “the escort”) to his new destination. He ignores the words of his escort until a dapper gentleman in charge appears–Mr. Jordan–titular character of the previous film–played by none other than James Mason (bringing a slight chuckle to those of us familiar with Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill). He is placed in the body of one Leo Farnsworth, billionaire industrialist and generally selfish, greedy, inhuman capitalist type after he witnesses the passionate pleas of Betty Logan (Julie Christie) to save her village from industrial development.

Beatty is 1970s Beatty–fast-talking, charming and fairly natural in his role, making it feel nice, comfortable and familiar for the audience, bringing on the goofball humour of a not-so-bright football player trying to fill the role of a businessman. I’m generally reluctant to give away lines that really make me laugh, but I cannot resist mentioning one–“We can porpoises?” Christie is as impassioned as her character Betty is, refusing to let “Farnsworth” get a word in through her tirade against his tyrannical treatment of the town she’s trying to protect. Mason is suave and debonair as the ethereal (quite literally!) and unflappable heavenly employee, with Buck an amusingly high-strung new worker. Charles Grodin is Tony Abbott, Farnsworth’s “personal private executive secretary”–as he’s wont to point out–plotting with Farnsworth’s wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) to kill her selfish husband. Grodin later became quite a ham playing similar roles (though usually a little more dominant), but here is wonderfully deadpan and submissive as Abbott, bringing amusing life to a number of lines. Joseph Maher is butler Sisk, and I swear I’ve seen him before a number of times with a moustache playing a butler or something of the sort, with a sort of resemblance to the upturned nose variety of humour from Stephen Fry–but maybe I’m thinking of someone else. Vincent Gardenia appeared in the credits and I was sure I had sadly missed him until he finally appeared as Det. Lt. Krim, as commanding as usual, but with that same strange foolish element that wasn’t a clumsiness or stupidity, yet still allows the audience and sometimes the other characters to get something over on him, mixed with a hidden wisdom and humanity–and yeah, he’s still Mr. Mushnik as far as I’m concerned. Another butler is Arthur Malet, who is a sort of amusingly childish old man, always funny, but in a loveable sort of way–I recognized him instantly as Hook‘s Tootles, a not too dissimilar role for him. R.G. Armstrong makes an appearance as the Rams’ general manger, previously being seen in tons of television and especially westerns and action flicks. And of course, note must be made again of Jack Warden, an instantly recognizable character actor, especially when he has his big bushy moustache on–he was one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men, another coach as Mouth McGarry in Twilight Zone episode “The Mighty Casey,” and as a convicted and isolated criminal in episode “The Lonely”–nevermind his roles in All the President’s Men, …And Justice for All (as a suicidal judge), Kurt Russell’s unscrupulous opponent in Used Cars, and various other bits–alternately a fired-up villain and an amicable and sympathetic older, fatherly figure.

Whew. Yeah, I enjoyed the cast a lot, as you can probably guess, as I always like seeing a whole mess of character actors I know and respect and can rely on for solid performances. The humour was surprisingly good for a crotchety old complainer like me (when it comes to humour, that is) and caught me offguard a few times, and a romance that seemed to work surprisingly well. There was a very fun score to the film, too, with an upbeat woodwind performance over the scenes of Beatty’s quarterbacking, capturing the energy and light-hearted nature of the scene, and then a radically different and strangely layered one that played through a lot of the rest, seemingly puffing up Farnsworth’s life while simultaneously taking it down as ridiculous–a dancing harpsichord sandwiched between an oompah-ing brass section and a dancing woodwind section on top of it. Some strange amalgamation of marching band, sped-up romantic theme and comedic hijinks theme. I really dug it, whatever the hell that was.

The one complaint–one apparently shared by others–is the ending. Obviously in discussing this, there are going to be spoilers, so consider yourself forewarned. The film ends when Mr. Jordan tells Joe that he will now have his memories of Jordan, the afterlife, the escort, Farnsworth and Joe Pendleton erased and continue his life in the final body he has been given. He’s told this is his destiny and so on, Max can no longer recognize Joe through his eyes, sees that he is gone–yet there is Betty recognizing it anyway. But what is it, then? Joe has no memories of himself, is seemingly now Tom Jarrett instead–so where did Joe go? If I accept that this is his “soul”–then what, exactly, is that soul? What is identity without experience, attitudes, personality, tastes, knowledge and familiarity? Does it even MATTER that this is still Joe’s soul without any of those things? If it’s that intangible and nebulous a concept, what good is it, really? And why did he get to maintain his memories through his “life” as Farnsworth? Why does Betty like Tom? She liked Joe, and this isn’t Joe. This really kind of ruined the ending for me, not enough to ruin the movie, but it really didn’t sit right.

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