Directed By: Warren Beatty
Written By: Warren Beatty and Elaine May (based on the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall)
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, James Mason
Heaven Can Wait is one of those films you smile all the way through whilst it’s on, but forget once you’ve risen from your seat. It’s an exceedingly lovely film, if not an overly safe and un-profound one. It’s not unlike a Frank Capra picture in its personality, built upon a cute whimsy, an easily accessed humour, and an idyllic simplicity.
Warren Beatty, who does…pretty much everything in this film (he co-directs with Buck Henry, co-writes with Elaine May, produces and stars in the leading role) gets tremendous comedic mileage out of the central conceit. The film is the second adaptation of Harry Segall’s stageplay, also entitled Heaven Can Wait, following 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, (in its own right a celebrated Oscar favourite.) In 1941 the central character, Joe Pendleton, was a boxer. Here, Joe is an aging football player, starving to play in the Super Bowl before his career is up. That opportunity looks to be snatched from him when an overzealous, first-day-on-the-job guardian escort (Buck Henry), retrieves the soul of Joe prematurely. You see, heaven works on the principles of probability and outcome. If a death looks probable, the escort beams down to Earth to observe the sequence and if the outcome is fatal, they guide the deceased’s soul up to heaven. Joe’s death looked probable when he rode his bike into a darkened tunnel with a truck headed in the opposite direction, but the escort didn’t wait for the outcome before he whisked Joe’s soul away.
Of course, Joe would’ve lived, but by the time heaven’s mysterious boss-man Mr. Jordan (James Mason,) concludes that Joe isn’t scheduled to arrive until 2025, poor Joe’s body has already been cremated. The trio are thus forced into damage control, owing Joe a new body that will allow him to somewhat pick-up where he left off.
Apparently there are a lot of rules in the soul escorting game, which is one of the film’s problems. Mr. Jordan and the escort find an opening for Joe in the form of the recently deceased, morally bankrupt industrialist Leo Farnsworth, whose body has yet to be discovered following his poisoning by his wife (Dyan Cannon) and his personal secretary (Charles Grodin). Leo isn’t football fit, but he is wealthy, and his position of power will at least allow Joe to do some good until a more suitably athletic body presents itself. Specifically, he can do some good by the environmentally conscious Betty (Julie Christie), who Joe quickly falls for. But just as things look promising for our hero, he’s thrown another senseless curve ball by the powers that be. Without spoiling too much, in the final act Joe is dealt another injustice by Mr. Jordan, and then another one shortly after that. What logical reason there is for these last-minute swerves is unclear, they certainly don’t seem right given Joe is only in this position in the first place because of what is essentially a divine clerical error. Rather they contrivedly arise from nowhere with the sole purpose of bolstering the dramatic stakes. Mr. Jordan’s spontaneous rule making serves to jeopardise the romance that Joe/Farnsworth develops with Betty, which would be less of a problem if the emotional payoffs were there. The romance never rings as true as required. For too long it’s treated peripherally, only to become the last-minute centre piece of the story. Indeed, the most affecting relationship is between Joe and his old trainer/long-time friend Max (Jack Warden), to whom Joe fights to convince he preposterously lives on in another body. This relationship on its own would have been enough.
Other opportunities go missing too. The film is certainly open to indicting greedy capitalism, as Joe absorbs the role of degenerate businessman. And an awful lot is said about destiny and things that are “written”, but the film ultimately settles for the niceties and optimism typified by sweet and simple Joe.
Whilst this sort of surface grazing would often be a great frustration, there is a kindness and earnestness to Heaven Can Wait which, in the absence of anything deeper, allows for a superior brand of sentimentality. Beatty and co aren’t coy. In all their niceties, they never resort to schmaltziness or spill into sanctimony with their good-will-conquers-all thesis. Rather the charm is refreshing and true.
The film’s greatest asset, its comedy, rides a sitcom trajectory. There are only a few gags in the film, but they’re each trusty and hit consistently. The film establishes a collection of scenarios it likes to revert to. There’s Joe communicating with the invisible Mr. Jordan whilst others look on bemused, the dopiness of Joe in dealing with Fansworth’s complex business models, Joe’s (Fansworth’s) attempting to convince his old football club that he can lead them to the Super Bowl as their quarterback; but the strongest is undoubtedly Cannon and Grodin (both terrific) as Leo’s would be assassins, frequently trying to finish the millionaire off, but to no avail. It’s the comedy that keeps the movie chugging, that keeps our good-will towards it so high. There is something so easing and comfortable about how uncomplicated the film is in its ambition. Heaven Can Wait wants us to laugh and to smile, and if nothing else, it at least achieves that.