Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reeling backward: "Heaven Can Wait"

I'm starting a new occasional series I'm calling "Reeling Backward" in which I look at older movies I'm seeing for the first time, or seeing again after a long hiatus.

I saw "Heaven Can Wait" in the theaters when I was 8 or 9 years old. It's curious to think about the things we remember 30 years later of a movie we saw once. My major impressions of this remake co-written, co-directed and starring Warren Beatty had to do with the grey warm-up suit and alto saxophone he has during his death scenes. I don't why it's stuck with me -- maybe the colorless outfit denoting his lack of substance outside of the live world, with that golden instrument as a repository of his personality. Whatever.

It's not a great movie, or even a particularly good one. Beatty plays Joe Pendleton, a back-up quarterback for the LA Rams who dies just before he's being given a shot to lead the team to the Super Bowl. Except he doesn't really die; an overeager celestial worker plucks him up before his time. To set things right, the unctuous manager, played by James Mason, puts Joe in the body of a rich industrialist, Leo Farnsworth. Farnsworth's wife and scheming secretary, having failed to poison him, set about other methods of assassination. Meanwhile, Fransworth/Joe buys the Rams so he can give himself the QB position, and falls in love with an Irish schoolteacher who came to protest a refinery he was going to build near her home.

Now, anyone who knows me and my film criticism knows that I tend to get hung up on illogical or unreasonable contortions of the plot. The filmmakers want to move the story from point A to point Z, and are often willing to skip a lot of steps if it suits them. That drives me bongo, especially when point H is in direct contradiction to point S.

For "Heaven," three things stuck out like a sore thumb to me:

As Leo, Beatty ignores the attempts on his life by his wife and secretary, even though he knows they poisoned him. (Only James Mason's intervention to stick him in Farnsworth's body presents him from dying.) They also rig the ceiling above his bed to fall on him. And yet he does nothing. Does it not occur to Joe, once he's decided he wants to stick around in Farnsworth's body, that he better head this little problem off at the pass? He doesn't, and they eventually succeed in offing him.

The starting quarterback for the Rams, Tom Jarrett, plays excellently until Farnsworth/Joe comes along, and yet nobody makes a stink about him being replaced by the rich guy who buys the team, and right before the Super Bowl, too. After some initial hostility, the players embrace Farnsworth/Joe as their new QB, and nobody says boo about the guy who actually led the team to the big game. This is not how real life works. Everybody, from the team to sportswriters to fans, would hate Farnsworth's guts for usurping the role of a guy who led the team.

Finally, and most glaringly, is the final body switcheroo. After Farnsworth is offed, Mason puts Joe's spirit into that of Tom Jarrett, who's hurt on a play. Whenever Joe asks the Mason character why someone has to die, he replies cryptically that "it's his time." And yet, as Mason is doing his ghostly fade-out thing, he instructs Joe that he will not remember anything about his former life, and will have the memories and awareness of Tom Jarrett. If that's so, then isn't Tom Jarrett the one who actually lives, and Joe is the one whose time is up? Doesn't Joe really die, and Tom lives?

It sounds like celestial bureaucracy at work to me.

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