Crowd Pleasers II

film 1 of 5

Heaven Can Wait

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

Heaven Can Wait looks kind of wan next to or after the vastly superior Shampoo (or McCabe…, or The Parallax View). Mind you, the more superior films are pretty profound in their pessimism. Maybe, in addition to commercial impulse, this time everyone just wanted to be a little more positive. On its way to that, Heaven Can Wait this effort might be more implausible than it could or should be. There’s some perfunctory in that, but some poignancy too. Times had changed! Either you can’t go back again, or when you do, you’ll find things in something of a shambles.

In its unambitious way, though, Heaven Can Wait really is a nice enough, reasonably crafted film. (Look at that effortless “looking good” intro, for instance.) Beatty is appealing. The decency of his character seems important to everybody, and it registers affectingly. They’re not asking much of him, but James Mason really is a masterful actor. Charles Grodin is also superb in presenting another variation of his customary comic persona. In the midst of all of the make-nice he provides a hint of comic ambition, or even danger. Co-writer Elaine May may be reining herself in, but occasionally you sense that she’s in the vicinity. (Vincent Gardenia’s riffing on Farnsworth’s hats is pure, insane May. There’s a woman you wish you’d heard more from!) One of the reasons that the film doesn’t quite take off probably lies in the fact that the village in England gambit is completely by the book, which causes the romance that follows to be pretty wan as well. You might have noticed that Julie Christie was also Beatty’s counterpart in a couple of those previously mentioned masterpieces. But romantically reassuring they were not! Times can change, in more ways than one.

After all of that, the various, also previously mentioned implausibles urge themselves forward through the pretty affecting resolution of all the plot’s farcical threads. I’m still uncertain, grateful for a good effort, somewhat unconvinced. Could it be? They can do comedy. They’re good with ingratiating. Theology? Less comfortable! I feel to observe in the most encouraging, good-luck-to-all-of-us way that that theology is pretty wintry. Like Bergman’s The Magic Flute? Yea I believe—help thou my unbelief! Right there is the failure of the thing, and all of its positive poignancy too.