Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry
Written by Elaine May and Warren Beatty

Perhaps one of the most well-respected and well-known movies (at least for film buffs) in my Football Movie MarathonHeaven Can Wait features Hollywood darling Warren Beatty pulling triple duty directing, writing and starring, featuring help along the way. It’s a movie I decided to include at the last minute due to its reputation, which includes several Academy Award nominations, including for most of the major categories, and one Oscar win (for Art Direction). It is light on football, although no less than some of the other films included in this list. I was most pleasantly surprised by that, as it was one reason I hesitated including it. Due to its aforementioned reputation, I was excited to sit down and see it, especially coming off the disappointment that was Semi-Tough, the previous film in the marathon.

Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is the likable backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, a contending team who may be looking to make a switch to Pendleton to make a playoff push. But when he mistakenly dies one day while riding his bike, Joe must jump through hoops to try to make it back to the Rams in time to win the Super Bowl. Joe was not meant to die in that bicycle accident, but he was taken from his body prematurely by a wet behind his ears angel (Buck Henry). His manager (James Mason) looks to correct the mistake by offering Joe other bodies which have recently become available, including Leo Farnsworth, whose wife (Dyan Cannon) and secretary (Charles Grodin) have plotted to kill him, steal his fortune, and run off together. Accepting this new body, Joe must deal with the moral wrongs Farnsworth and his company are involved in, including displacing a nice lady (Julie Christie) and her fellow townspeople, all the while trying to figure out how to once again become the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams and win the Super Bowl.

Based on a 1940s film, Here Comes Mr. Jordan starring Robert Montgomery and Claude Rains, Heaven Can Wait is a bit of an odd thing if you ask me. It has ambition in that it tells a compelling, fantastical tale about how heaven might work, and it does so in a lighthearted, and sometimes funny manner. Grodin and Cannon are there merely for comedic relief, while Beatty does much of the heavy lifting alongside James Mason. But at its heart, this is a very light movie, even with the death implications. The balancing act is difficult, especially when I often found the film to be painfully unfunny. Despite Grodin and Cannon, their antics just didn’t do anything for my funny bone. I couldn’t find the humor in the morbidity of their intentions, especially not knowing what kind of a man Farnwsworth was before Joe took over.

Now Beatty on the other hand does very well in playing the kind and positive Joe Pendleton. He is a little bit eccentric, living in a mobile home in the Southern California hills, playing a poor saxaphone and generally liking everybody he encounters. His is an attractive personality, and one which welcomes the viewer into his story. And the morality play on display here is compelling to some degree, as Joe must grapple with what it means to be reincarnate, and wishing to pursue his own desire, while also being cognizant of the responsibilities of his new life as Farnsworth. It’s an entirely unrealistic and unrelatable situation, but it’s also an interesting character study to reveal how Joe decides to live his life given his new money and status as Farnsworth. At his core he still wishes to do good and play football.

In the end, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by everything, however well intentioned it seemed to be. I simply couldn’t get over how slight everything felt, especially the romance between Joe and the Julie Christie character. It was very manufactured and felt insincere. Based on his personality, Joe is a very eligible bachelor. A professional football player and all around likable guy, yet he somehow lives alone in the hills and takes a literal change in status to attract a worthy partner. All this combined with what seemed like a complete disregard for how professional football works. It was too much of a stretch to believe that Farnsworth could buy the team and push to play as QB, or that the lead athletic trainer could take his days off to help train Farnsworth, amidst a Super Bowl run by his team. These small details, on top of the already mediocre storyline, did the movie in for me. It’s not without its merits, including its production values, but Heaven Can Wait was simply a disappointment for me.

★★ 1/2 – Average

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