In “Just Like Heaven,” Mark Ruffalo plays a San Francisco architect who falls in love with the ghost of a woman named Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon) who haunts his home.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is an afterlife, and ghosts do exist, why can’t they just date each other? Wouldn’t the pool of eligible prospects be much larger in heaven? Elizabeth could have a shot with James Dean! Why do celluloid ghosts keep falling for the living?
One of the first films to tackle this subject was “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), the turn of the century tale of Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), a young widow who moves into a seaside home and is haunted by the ghost of its previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). While the cranky Gregg does his best to get rid of Lucy, she is undeterred and eventually they develop a relationship that leads to love. The lauded romantic melodrama was turned into a fairly reviled TV sitcom in 1968, which lasted two seasons.
In director Wim Wenders’ 1988 German film, “Wings of Desire,” an angel named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) has been studying and chronicling human behavior since the dawn of time. But when he falls in love with a melancholy trapeze artist, Damiel becomes restless and gives up observing humanity to be a part of it. An utterly endearing Peter Falk (playing an actor on location in Berlin) reveals himself to be another former angel and helps Damiel transition into the world of flesh and blood. Like many of Wenders’ films, this is a “love-it-or-hate-it” movie, and its complex plot and extended scenes of melancholy introspection can be off-putting if you’re averse to such fare. But “Wings of Desire” is one of those rare films that stick to your consciousness long after you’ve seen it.
Ten years later, “Wings of Desire” was remade for an American audience as “City of Angels,” with Nicolas Cage in the role of the love-struck angel pining for a lonely doctor (Meg Ryan). Far less poetic than “Wings,” “City of Angels” suffers from a Harlequin Romance esthetic, complete with painfully slow pacing, lots of (purportedly) sensual scenes of bathing, eating and hair brushing, a tear-jerker ending and the Goo Goo Dolls’ truly execrable power ballad, “Iris.” Even without comparison to “Wings,” “City of Angels” doesn’t make you want to live life to its fullest; it makes you want to cancel your Netflix account.
Spirits of the dead falling in love is one thing, but what happens when Death himself becomes smitten? That’s the plot of “Meet Joe Black” (1998), an update of 1934’s “Death Takes a Holiday.” In the film, the Grim Reaper (Brad Pitt, playing against type) gives a wealthy businessman named William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) a little extra time on Earth in exchange for a taste of what it’s like to be alive. Things get complicated when the taste comes to include William’s daughter, Susan (the radiant Claire Forlani). Director Martin Brest’s parable about smelling the roses is a bit long (over three hours), but here the languid pace works. Unlike “City of Angels,” this movie actually manages to conjure the tactile gratification of eating a spoonful of peanut butter or doing some smoochin.’
Somewhat less concerned with the pleasures of the flesh (thankfully) is 1998’s “Casper Meets Wendy,” where spooky sparks fly between the friendly ghost (CGI) and the good little witch (Hilary Duff in her first role). We’re beyond curious as to what, exactly, bagged this straight-to-video kids’ flick a PG rating. We remember being curious about the relationship when we read Casper comics as a kid. And there was that one issue where Casper and Wendy went to Tahiti for a long weekend with Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost … We smell a Todd Solondz sequel!
Then there’s the sub-genre of the dead who can’t let go of their living loved ones, a la the metaphysical chick flick “Ghost” (1990), the slightly less cheesy British film, “Truly, Madly, Deeply” (1991) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999).
Amorous spirits apparently haunt the whole planet. There’s a handful of Asian films tackling the topic, such as 1983’s “Esprit d’Amour” and the 1987 Chow Yun-Fat vehicle, “Spiritual Love,” where the martial artist must battle a disembodied purple head for the love of his ghost girlfriend. And how about the 1952 Mexican movie, “El Fantasma se en Amora” (The Ghost Falls in Love)? Even Bollywood has jumped into the metaphysical-romance realm with the current release, “Paheli,” about a tree-dwelling spirit who falls in love with a new bride when she removes her veil under its branches.
Maybe the reason behind all these films is a bit of hubris among the living: life is so great, we humans bouncing around on this planet are so lucky, that even those who have gone on to the great beyond are envious of us and think we’re so fantastic that they want to be with us! Or is it the opposite? Are we so afraid of the possibility that there’s nothing to come after our worldly existence that we speculate that even if there is a heaven, it’s really not that great compared to what we have now?
Regardless, the one thing that’s certain is that any relationship between the living and the dead is doomed. Even if astral communication is more reliable, easier and cheaper than phone calls, e-mail, IMs and text messaging, you’re still talking about one hell (or heaven) of a long-distance relationship.
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