First, imagine you've just died. What do you mean I'm being morbid? Snap out of it; this is a comedy. Now, imagine there's been a mistake and you're given a second chance. You can return to Earth. The only problem is, your loved ones have cremated your body, so the only choice is to find a new one. Based on the 1941 fantasy "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (which in turn was based on a play by Harry Segall), this 1978 remake is newly titled "Heaven Can Wait" (which was the original title of Segall's play, incidentally; everything comes around).
It is one of the most delightful and endearing romantic comedies Hollywood ever produced. And thanks in large measure to Warren Beatty, who stars, produced, cowrote, and co-directed the picture, it equals, maybe even betters, its predecessor.
Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is the second-string quarterback of the old L.A. Rams, and he's about to get his first start when he runs his bicycle headlong into an automobile. A newly commissioned heavenly escort (played by co-director Buck Henry) takes Joe's spirit from his body before he should and whisks it off to heaven. Big mistake. It wasn't actually Joe's time to die. He would have survived. But the escort was so sure and didn't want him to suffer! It's up to Mr. Jordan (James Mason), a head-honcho angel, to made amends. He gives Joe the reassurance that everything will be all right, that Joe has another fifty years to live. They just have to find him a new body.
The one they decide upon is a multimillionaire, Leo Farnsworth, who is being murdered by his wife and personal secretary. Mr. Jordan slips Joe's spirit into Farnsworth's body at the last second, and Joe takes on his new identity. He still looks and sounds like Joe to the audience, but to everyone else he looks and sounds like Farnsworth. Now, the fun begins. Joe wants to play football again and decides to get Farnsworth's body in shape to play. In the meantime, the murderous wife and secretary continue to hang around and plot their next move; and a representative from a protest group in England (Julie Christie) wants Farnsworth's head on a platter for his company's misdeeds in her little village.
Beatty plays Joe as the most innocent, honest, kindhearted guy in the world, more so than Robert Montgomery played him in the first movie, and most of the film's satiric jabs are derived from Joe's interactions with the big-business cutthroats who surround him. But poor Joe finds that even Farnsworth's body is temporary, leading to the film's surprising, though not wholly satisfactory, ending.
A film is only as good as its supporting cast, and Beatty surrounds himself with some of the best people in the business. Julie Christie costars as the attractive Englishwoman, Betty Logan. She starts as a firebrand and ends up as the movie's love interest. Her words in the final scene, "You're the quarterback," never fail to move me. (You'll have to trust me on that one.) Mason, playing the part originated by Claude Rains, is his usual elegant, assured, quiet-spoken self. Jack Warden plays Max Corkle, Joe's old trainer, the fellow Joe has to convince he's come back from the dead in a new body. But the most laughs come from the villains. Charles Grodin plays Farnsworth's personal private executive secretary, Tony Abbott, who schemes with Farnsworth's wife to kill him and take all his money. Grodin is wonderfully smarmy and insincere in the role. He became a TV talk-show host. Dyan Cannon plays Mrs. Farnsworth, whose hysterical behavior comes straight out of the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. She, too, is wonderful in the part. Finally, I should mention the late Vincent Gardenia, as ever perfect playing a beleaguered police lieutenant.
I can't remember what the picture quality was like when I first saw it in a theater, but I have been disappointed with two tapes (one BETA and one VHS) I made from TV and with Paramount's own prerecorded VHS tape. They all looked fuzzy and washed out. The new DVD transfer is an immense improvement, but the image properties remain somewhat variable. Most of the time the picture is bright and clear, with delineation reasonably well etched. Yet at other times, the image is slightly soft and faded. A couple of very brief scenes, lasting only a minute or so, are downright blurred. The film is reproduced in a widescreen ratio of 1.66:1.
Like the image, the digitally mastered monaural sound can vary. It behaves itself most of the time, but occasionally it is scratchy and distorted, especially in loud passages like crowd noise. So, while the DVD audio and video are nothing to write home about (at least not compared to other DVDs), they are, nevertheless, miles ahead of the film's previous formats for home viewing.
Unfortunately, the powers that be at Paramount continue to give us little beyond the movie. There are English and French language options, English captions for the hearing impaired, scene selections, and a trailer. Nothing more.
Sweet and gentle are the best ways to describe "Heaven Can Wait." It's a leisurely film and thoroughly enjoyable. I find it reassuring to know that comedies can be made without nudity, profanity, or bathroom humor and still be funny and appealing in today's market. It makes my recommendation that much easier.