Heaven Can Wait Review
1978. In a year of such quality releases as Midnight Express, Coming Home, Days Of Heaven and The Deer Hunter, it's both amusing and admirable that such a throwaway fantasy comedy such as Heaven Can Wait can earn itself nine Oscar nominations.
Based on a play by Harry Segall, that was made into a 1941 movie named Here Comes Mr. Jordan and recently a dreadful rehash called Down To Earth starring Chris Rock, Heaven Can Wait is a lightweight and fun piece of entertainment rearing its head amidst the intensity of late-seventies cinema. Clearly a traditionalist piece of moviemaking as opposed to being a revisionist and inventive assault on Hollywood, the film's producer, co-writer, co-director and lead star Warren Beatty clearly saw the niche market of the Capra-fantasy reopen after the phenomenal success of Rocky.
Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is a simple and likeable reserve quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, a team journeying towards a winning Superbowl season. Nearing the end of his career, Joe has pulled himself back into shape and has convinced his coaches that he is good enough to start as first choice for the Rams' next match. However, Joe is killed in a freak crash, and whilst in heaven guardian angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason) realises that a mistake has been made, and that Joe was supposed to have died fifty years later! Returning to Earth to put Joe back into his body, Mr. Jordan and Joe are horrified to learn that Joe has already been cremated. Angry that he is missing the Superbowl, Joe agrees to be placed temporarily in millionaire Leo Farnsworth's body. However, Leo has problems of his own, in the form of his chief assistant Tony (Charles Grodin) and Leo's wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) plotting to murder him! All Joe wants is for Mr. Jordan to find him a body that is good enough to get him into the Rams' Superbowl team, but are more mystical forces in play?
Granted, the film doesn't address a worthy cause such as prison torture or the Vietnam conflict, but Heaven Can Wait exists in its own carefully constructed world of sweet-hearted charm mixed with fantastical mysticism. It's refreshing to see a film in which the afterlife is not presented as some glorious paradise in which the protagonist is willing to abandon Earth so readily for; indeed, it's refreshing to see a film so tinged with death and so unafraid to joke at everything. Even the concept of Tony and Julia trying their best to murder Leo with their hair-brained schemes is humourous, because he seems to be doing everything he can to outwit them without even knowing he is a target. As a character, Joe in whatever body Mr. Jordan places him in seems to float through life, as if his manic quest to reach the Superbowl has emotionally distanced himself from the antics of his surrounding characters. He never sits still, flowing with energy as if the 'body' he has been given is merely a vehicle for his quest.
Beatty is surprisingly very good as Joe, in a role that he was clearly desperate to play. There is a certain grounded charm to Joe that makes him instantly likeable - he isn't greedy or arrogantly self-obsessed (the almost exact opposite of Beatty's iconic celebrity status) and it's fun to see such a simple man having the funds of Leo Farnsworth at his disposal, considering Joe is using them solely to woo cute English teacher Betty Logan (Julie Christie in an underdeveloped performance) and to work his way back into the Ram's lineup. One of the film's funniest moments springs from the Rams' owner (John Randolph) despising Joe for offering him such a lucrative offer to own the team that he couldn't refuse.
Heaven Can Wait features a strong cast ensemble with many highlights. Beatty is as dependable as ever, even if he isn't matched by Julie Christie in a somewhat stilted performance. Jack Warden provides fine support as Joe's best friend Max, even if the real highlights are Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon as murderous lovers Tony and Julia. They generate the film's highest level of comedy, and steal every scene they are in. James Mason and Buck Henry are average as Heaven's Mr Jordan and his escort, but for the most part their characters are more mundane as opposed to fantastical. It's as if the only thing that makes Mason different from the rest of the actors is his posh, stiff accent.
Judging by some of the harsh editing employed in the film, you sense that Heaven Can Wait has either been cut dramatically or needed much post-production work. Surprisingly, the film still works on its own modest level quite successfully. Beatty and co-director Buck Henry direct the film with a nice balance of feel-good 'capra-ism' and family comedy, and it's rumoured that Robert Towne even helped with the script. It delivers what it promises, a charming, sweet-natured fantasy comedy, and whilst clearly not the highlight of Beatty's career, Heaven Can Wait may be his nicest.
Academy Awards 1978
Best Art Direction - George Gaines, Edwin O'Donovan, Paul Sylbert
Academy Award Nominations 1978
Best Director - Warren Beatty, Buck Henry
Best Actor - Warren Beatty
Best Supporting Actor - Jack Warden
Best Supporting Actress - Dyan Cannon
Best Adapted Screenplay - Warren Beatty, Elaine May
Best Cinematography - William A. Fraker
Best Original Score - Dave Grusin
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1, the transfer for Heaven Can Wait is mostly uninspired, with a heavy amount of grain and a very noticeable amount of digital artefacts occurring during the heaven sequences. It's still a very watchable presentation, but the picture is in need of a pristine restoration.
Presented in mono, the sound mix lacks sharp tone but is recorded at a decent volume level. Dialogue fluctuates between a crisp and unrefined origin, and the music sits uneasily on top of the soundtrack, but just as it was the film's transfer, proceedings still do not feel marred.
Menu: A silent, static menu incorporating the same artwork as the film's packaging.
Packaging: The film's original poster artwork adorns the front cover, and a one page chapter listing is included. The packaging is mostly bland in design, and features the usual Paramount Widescreen Collection template.
Theatrical Trailer: A chunky original trailer for Heaven Can Wait that spoils many of the film's finer moments.
A very pleasant and enjoyable Beatty vehicle is given a decidedly average barebones treatment from Paramount. Heaven Can Wait possesses a deserved cult following, but should really only be purchased at a cheap price, as Paramount's current RRP for barebones back-catalogue releases is terribly high.