Heaven Can Wait (1978) / Comedy-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for language and some violence
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, James Mason, Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon, Buck Henry, Vincent Gardenia, Dick Enberg, Dolph Sweet, Peter Tomarken, Deacon Jones, Curt Gowdy, Bryant Gumbel
Director: Warren Beatty, Buck Henry
Screenplay: Elaine May, Warren Beatty (based on the play by Harry Segall)
Review published April 3, 2005
Harry Segall's play became the basis for a popular film way back in 1941 with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and while Heaven Can Wait may not quite live up to the classic status of that film, it stands up quite well on its own as a light romantic fantasy. Co-written, co-directed and starring Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde, Bulworth), the film would be a big hit with critics and audiences alike, earning nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It's as charming and genial as you're ever likely to find in a movie, with a smart premise, very good locale work, and an ensemble of talented comedic actors who are cast perfectly. Not a religious film by any means, it isn't concerned so much with Heaven or the afterlife so much as exploring the comic possibilities of a man transported from one life to another, trying to inject his own personality into the body of another.
The film starts off with Warren Beatty playing Joe Pendleton, the backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, although his amazing talent has earned him the starting job in the upcoming game. Superbowl aspirations are thwarted when Joe is killed in an accident, sending him to the afterlife, where he is to await his final destination. It turns out that Joe's soul was pulled too soon from his body and he wasn't supposed to die in the accident, but now that his body has been cremated, there is no hope of gaining it back. Led by Mr. Jordan (James Mason, Journey to the Center of the Earth), Joe shops around for a new body, eventually opting for a temporary one as the wealthy magnate, Leo Farnsworth. As Leo, Joe tries to clean up his slimy image, while also having to deal with his adulterous wife (Dyan Cannon, Kangaroo Jack) and her lover (Charles Grodin, King Kong), who have been trying to kill him. Joe has two goals in mind: to find a way back to his rightful place as the Rams starting QB and to win the heart of the lovely Betty Logan (Julie Christie, Finding Neverland), the schoolteacher who has been pleading with him not to build a refinery in her town.
Heaven Can Wait marked the first film directed by Warren Beatty, working closely with comedian co-star Buck Henry in order to keep the timing and momentum just right. By all accounts, it is a successful debut. Although it is originally based on a play, Beatty and co-screenwriter Elaine May do a terrific job imbuing the film with a wider cinematic feel, especially in the several football scenes sprinkled throughout the movie. The original revolved around boxing, but Beatty didn't think he could pull off a successful boxing film, so he changed it to football, a sport he knew how to play well enough.
While the writing and directing are both well handled, it is in the cast chemistry that the film gains its charm. Beatty plays his part as a lovable dolt, whose lack of sophistication completely bewilders the servants around the mansion, setting up the film's bigger jokes. Julie Christie has a less flashy role, but she adds class, as does James Mason in his role as the agent of Heaven out to set things right. As good as they are, the character actors steal the show, with a memorably energetic performance by Jack Warden (All the President's Men, While You Were Sleeping) as the football coach and Dyan Cannon as Leo's shrill wife, Julia. Charles Grodin also steals some scenes of his own as the film's lecher.
Heaven Can Wait did achieve great critical and commercial success, but it isn't likely to be perceived as anything great by those who don't like sentimental movies, or those expecting something more substantive. Taking the film on its own terms, as a light romantic fantasy, it is an excellent example of how to make a movie like this, capturing a spirit of life, romance, and good natured cheer. A true delight from start to finish.
-- Made previously as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Remade as Down to Earth (2001).
©2005 Vince Leo