What's left under the sun where non-traditional relationships are concerned? Two new films suggest that a dalliance with the dead can be just as rewarding and romantically charged as that ordinary hook-up with a breather that we're accustomed to.
In Mark Waters' wispy romantic comedy Just Like Heaven, the lady in question is a perky doctor, Elizabeth (Reese Witherspoon), rendered ethereal by a car accident. However, in a real-estate market like San Francisco, one does not abandon one's divine Victorian apartment, with its million-dollar views, simply on the technicality of being dead. So Elizabeth returns home to discover that David (Mark Ruffalo), a depressed widower, has sublet her pad and is leaving beer-can rings on the coffee table.
As expected, they squabble over the apartment -- and just who is what. Curiously, each needs convincing of Elizabeth's lack of corporality; the moving through walls is a helpful clue. Elizabeth is visible only to David, but a psychic (Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder) confirms a "hostile presence." Presumably with nothing better to do, David agrees to help Elizabeth remember who she is -- she's familiar with her home furnishings but not her life -- and ... well, you know how it goes: Sparring, even with the not-quite-living, soon leads to swooning.
It's the two leads who give the film any body, though each trots out tried-and-true characterizations: Witherspoon is button-cute and feisty, and Ruffalo employs the shaggy charms that have made him go-to guy for offbeat romantic leads. Just doesn't get much bounce from any co-stars (Donal Logue is the oafish pal), and its soundtrack is strictly by the book (swelling strings and terrible remakes of lightweight 1980s pop songs).
It's the notion of falling in love with an intelligent, lively woman who has no tangible body that offers an intriguing twist on the "love me for my mind" caveat. (For the sake of argument, we'll discount how much the story punishes the ambitious Elizabeth for having a successful career.) But at mid-point, the film proffers the first of several metaphysical cheats that leave Just Like Heaven a standard romantic comedy with a dash of spiritual hoo-hah.
There's no parsing what it means to be dead in Tim Burton's animated Victorian-era fable Corpse Bride, in which the titular gal is truly deceased: She's half exposed bones, her limbs fall off, and a mouthy maggot is encamped in her head. But in Burton's romance based on a Russian folk tale, the Bride's heart -- however motionless -- still yearns for love.
Fleeing a bungled wedding ceremony, shy groom Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) runs into the forest, and while practicing his vows places the ring on a twig protruding from the ground. Bad move: That's a finger, not a stick -- and as the freaky specter still in a tattered bridal gown rises from the earth, Victor learns that he has just wed a corpse. The Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) whisks Victor to an impromptu celebration with the other bony, rotting souls in the subterranean Land of the Dead. But what really causes Victor to fret is his other wedding date, above ground with his living fiancée, Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson).
Burton's fractured fairy tale, co-directed with Mike Johnson, is a glorious piece of stop-motion animation, its fluidity and visual depth a testament to the years Burton spent developing it. The Bride's wispy veil that floats convincingly, the meticulous lighting, the elaborate puppets that depict the amusingly twisted denizens -- these are all reasons to celebrate Burton's commitment to the time-consuming stop-motion craft, especially in this age of popular digital animation (Burton employed similar animation techniques in 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas).
What's lacking in this 76-minute film is a more compelling story, or at least better padding for the simple narrative. It's not that Burton doesn't pack the house with goofy characters -- the bellman shaped like a bell, the townsfolk who are all exaggerated chins and bosoms, two adorably cute dead kids -- but they never properly integrate into the story. They also feel familiar, as does much of the film, which could have been cobbled from earlier Burton outings: gloomy woods and a stray head from Sleepy Hollow; wisecracking skeleton puppets from Nightmare; the undead bride from Beetlejuice; Danny Elfman's Oingo-Boingo-ish songs; and the two frequently employed -- and familiarly rendered -- lead actors, Depp and Carter.
The subject matter is rather daring -- I married a rotting dead person -- and thus might have offered darker, more sophisticated humor. But the film relies chiefly on bad puns and silly voices: Why the maggot wheezes like Peter Lorre I have no idea. (That the piano Victor plays is a "Harryhausen" is a better in-joke, a bit of homage to the fabled stop-motion animator.)
It's somewhat ironic that a committed iconoclast such as Burton can't shake the conventions of a romantic comedy. Despite his love of physical freaks, his three lovers are idealized beauties (the flesh has come off the Bride's arm but her stupendous breasts remain full). Per the rules, the lovers must run the gamut of comic circumstances before finally succumbing to the inevitable love match. I'd hoped that either Just Like Heaven or Corpse Bride might push the genre's envelope a bit by pairing the alive with the dearly departed. (A whole new dating pool!) But it seems that being dead is just another gimmick on the way to the altar in the same old Land of the Living. Both films: