Julie Christie and Warren Beatty in 1978's "Heaven Can Wait."

Heaven Can Wait

April 30, 2016

A reconfiguring of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (with no relation to Ernst Lubitsch’s own Heaven Can Wait), 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, directed by Warren Beatty and co-written with Elaine May, is a comedy of the old-fashioned, screwball kind, fantastical one minute, brash the next, and sprightly romantic in another.  In it, Beatty stars as Joe Pendleton, a celebrated quarterback nearing the end of his career.  Taken with the idea of leading his team, the Los Angeles Rams, to the Super Bowl, he ignores the setbacks presented by his not-as-youthful-as-it-used-to-be body and begins rigorous training.


But one day, while going for a strenuous bike ride near his home’s country roads, he is struck by a reckless bus driver, the accident killing him instantly.  As this occurs within the first few moments of Heaven Can Wait, we can presume that it isn’t all over for Joe — and we’re right.  Immediately afterward, he finds himself strolling in the cloudy Shangri-La known as Heaven, where he is greeted by Mr. Jordan (James Mason), the otherworldly coordinator of passage into the afterlife. 


Minutes into accepting his fate, Joe is informed that the angel who escorted him (Buck Henry) did so anxiously and prematurely.  Technically, he should have waited until Joe’s barely alive body was transported to a nearby hospital, but, being new at his job, claimed the football star before his time.


Understandably, Joe is rattled by the fact that he could have easily remained his old self.  And so, after a good deal of asking, he is given the opportunity to possess the being of someone on Earth.   Problem is, that somebody must also be on the verge of death themselves.  Following much contemplation, Mr. Jordan picks Leo Farnsworth, a widely despised millionaire who is facing combat from environmentalists, especially British ecologist Betty Logan (Julie Christie), and from his wife (Dyan Cannon) and her lover (Charles Grodin), who are planning to kill him and inherit his money.


Despite all the complications surrounding him, Joe has little on the mind besides completing his goal of winning the Super Bowl.  Given his status, he first purchases the team, later convincing his trainer (Jack Warden) that the unfamiliar millionaire in front of him is actually Joe Pendleton, in need of getting into shape.  With all the commotion detailing the scenery, things are bound to get kooky.  It doesn’t help that Joe and Betty begin falling in love shortly after they first meet.


Heaven Can Wait has long been described as a screwball comedy of the classic 1930s sort, but I find it to be too slight to deserve such crowning comparison.  Throughout viewing was I reminded of May’s directorial debut, 1971’s A New Leaf, which she also wrote.  Upon experiencing the latter did I also come to the conclusion that, while May is an intelligent, perceptive screenwriter when it comes to dialogue and to crafting humorous situations out of a pessimistic sitcom’s dream, there’s a struggle to concoct certifiable laughs. 


Like conversation embedded in the works of Noel Coward, we can appreciate the verbal luminosity but are never much enticed to react to it. I applaud Heaven Can Wait for its ability to make a plot straight out of the Hollywood Golden Age still work in a decade as jaded as the 1970s. Its ensemble is noteworthy: Dyan Cannnon and Charles Grodin are especially sufficient as the selfish lovers who can’t seem to do anything right.  But missing is the sense of excitement found in most screwball comedies; it should be flippant and risky, but it safely retreats in pleasantry that you probably won’t mind if you aren’t looking for anything deep.  C+