Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Directed by Warren Beatty, Buck Henry


Heaven Can Wait is a romantic comedy with some incredibly haunting implications about death.  Sure, Warren Beatty stars as Joe Pendleton, the quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, and sure, his goal is to find a way to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory, but my gosh, the film glosses over a lot of details in regards to the afterlife, details which are much more interesting than the A plot of the movie.

To start, this is a playful movie with more than a few charming moments, but there are also more than a few plot holes, and the story doesn’t move with any plot momentum.  In alternating moments, the story is plot driven, then character driven, then plot driven once more.  It’s uneven, in other words, and as a whole, this is a rough watch.  It blows my mind that this film was nominated for ten oscars including best picture.

But that being said, it’s quite a fun movie.  Joe (Beatty) is a wonderfully positive character.  He’s a health nut, and his coach, Max Corkle (Jack Warden, a terrific character actor whose credits include Twelve Angry MenThe Verdict and All the President’s Men) might just be his only friend.

After being named the starter for the following game, Joe finds himself involved in a car crash that sends him to heaven where Buck Henry and James Mason tell him, rather indirectly, that he’s dead.  But Buck Henry, it seems, acted a little quickly, and it wasn’t Joe’s time to die.  Henry takes Joe back to earth to be placed into his body, but when they discover he’s been cremated, the plan shifts.  These angels tell Joe that they will apologize by letting him pick another recently deceased body to be placed into.

Joe ultimately settles on an elderly businessman named Farnsworth who has just been murdered by his wife and assistant, who just so happens to be in love with the wife.  When Joe takes over this body it produces a series of jokes in which his wife and assistant can’t believe he’s still alive.  Joe, who still looks like Warren Beatty to us, lives as Farnsworth only because he’s quickly smitten with a school teacher named Betty (Julie Christie), who protests a factory he is set to build.

As Farnsworth, Joe turns everything around.  He doesn’t have the same maniacal, capitalistic interests as the man whose body he’s in, so he takes a series of steps to undo some of this man’s damage.  This culminates in the midpoint of the film, and with Joe having successfully demonstrated enough of a kind soul to win over Betty’s affection, he turns his sights back to football.

See, even though he’s an older man, Joe has his same athletic abilities, apparently.  He calls Max to come meet him, and we get that familiar body-switching scene in which someone has to convince a dear friend that they are who they say they are.  In short, Joe convinces Max that he’s Joe Pendleton, one time and future quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams.

Following a training montage of Joe preparing for a Rams tryout, once he buys the team with Farnsworth’s fortune, Joe demonstrates his athletic ability, impressing the entire team.  By this point Betty is basically in love with him, but then James Mason shows up to tell Joe that it’s time for him to go into another body.  Farnsworth’s body, we learn, was only meant to be a temporary home.

When Farnsworth is finally murdered by his wife and assistant, Joe is taken away to be put into the body of the other Rams quarterback, Tom Jarrett, who is killed by a severe hit during the middle of the Super Bowl.  Talk about prescience, it’s like this movie casually tosses out how violent football is.

So Joe takes over Jarrett’s lifeless body and leads the Rams to victory.  It’s a triumphant moment but a horrifying one.  Tom Jarrett has just died, and yet no one around him will ever know that he’s dead, having been replaced by another dead man.

After winning the game, Joe is excited to go find Betty and convince her who he is, but suddenly James Mason again shows up to tell him that soon he will forget all his memories of being Joe, only to truly become Tom Jarrett.  This final reveal feels too forced, as this information was never set up early in the film.  It’s just pulled out of thin air to produce a final conflict that is unrelated to the football game, which I suppose is good because the football game isn’t meaningful enough to be the climax of the entire film.

When Tom leaves the field after the game, he runs into Betty, and though he doesn’t recognize her, she recognizes him, his soul I suppose.

So, while Tom is effectively Tom by the end, I think the implication is that his soul is still Joe’s.  So this poses a host of philosophical questions.  Is Tom Jarrett Tom Jarrett or Joe Pendleton?  And to a lesser degree, does he have the football IQ of Joe or Tom?

I could think about this all day, but the focus of the film is just on the love story between Beatty and Christie who, to be honest, tend to have a nice chemistry onscreen, even if it is very brief here.  They made a nice pairing in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman), a few years earlier.

This movie is fine.  It has a few nice performances, a bunch of familiar faces, and it’s hammy the right amount.  But it’s amazing to be that this received so much Oscar consideration, though it only one a minor award.  This is a silly, light-hearted rom-com that, to me, misses the mark.  It’s like someone with the power to levitate buildings who only bothers to lift trash off the ground.

The movie is playing with life and death, and granted it’s in a comical way, but by God, I want to know more about Tom Jarrett and what will become of him.  Also, Joe is a solitary figure I suppose, but even if Tom is really Joe, he has no friends, except Max and eventually Betty.  They all think he’s dead.

I just wonder so much about what will happen after the film ends.  And the rest of it is extremely silly.  Any movie with this much emphasis on sports is bound to feel silly as movies rarely present a sport with any authenticity.  Beatty looks good throwing the deep ball, but his desire to get back to the field isn’t that interesting.  It’s fun, but it doesn’t serve any real purpose beyond entertainment.

This story is about… several things, but none of them elevate this film to Academy Award status.  The film was co-written and co-directed by Beatty, and, like Days of Thunder for Tom Cruise, this just feels like an attempt to give Beatty something to do.  He’s a charismatic actor (look at those locks), and he’s charming to be sure, so the movie just lets him be funny, charming (he’s always the right guy in a room full of people doing it wrong), and it attempts to give him a tragic ending (losing his memory) with the potential to overcome it (he’ll probably somehow remember who he was).

But I’m left with feelings of sorrow for Tom Jarrett who is dead but whose body is not.  It’s like he’s blacked out for eternity, not in control of what will happen to him or what he does.


One thought on “Heaven Can Wait (1978)

  1. This is a movie I first saw in my early teens, and have watched happily dozens of times since then. It has become one of my all time favorites. While I love the football premise that drives the movie and romance between the main actors, it is really the spiritual message that has stayed with me for 40+ years. “There is a reason for everything. There is always a plan.”.

    The future is never guaranteed to anyone, but it certainly can be a comforting thought that we are not bouncing randomly around this planet without any divine guidance or inspiration. Silly turns and plot holes aside, the sentiment in Heaven Can Wait gives us all reassurance that someone is watching over us. If believed, it makes getting through each day a little easier.

    Even though WB’s character Tom Jarrett is denied the memory of his past existence, you can’t help but feel uplifted that no matter what the future holds, he will be looked after.

    Gets me misty eyed every time.


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