I think I’ve said here before that the 70s might be the greatest decade in the history of film making. The then new batch of directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin were given crazy amounts of freedom and money. And that resulted in blockbuster prestige like The Godfather, gritty groundbreakers like Taxi Driver and glorious, ambitious flops, like Sorcerer. But the 70s wasn’t just about serious darkness. The 70s also knew how to do frivolous and silly and light as well. It did that with movies like Heaven Can Wait.
After a serious knee injury, Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) has worked his ass off to recover and regain his spot as the starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. On a morning bike ride, he is hit by a car and killed. Only, once in heaven, he learns he wasn’t actually killed in the accident. It turns out, an over eager angel (Buck Henry) took Joe’s soul before the accident, which he believed was an inevitable killer. But Joe should have lived for another decade or four. The angel’s superior (James Mason as Mr Jordan) comes up with a solution, they’ll just put Joe back in his old body. But it turns out, Joe’s earthly remains have already been cremated.
Mr Jordan comes up with another solution, they’ll put Joe’s soul in the body of someone whose death hasn’t been discovered yet. They land on millionaire Leo Farnsworth who has just been poisoned by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and personal secretary, Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin). Joe is determined to get his old life back, going so far as to buy the Rams with Leo’s millions so he can get his place back on the team in time for the Super Bowl. Things get complicated when Tony persists in trying to kill “Leo” while Joe, in the body of Leo, begins to fall for Betty Logan (Julie Christie), an activist protesting the practices of Leo’s business.
Heaven Can Wait is an odd movie, and difficult to pin down. It has plenty of funny moments, but I don’t think it’s trying to be an out and out comedy. Joe’s attraction to Betty drives a lot of his actions, but I don’t think it’s trying to be a romance or romantic comedy either. It all leads up to a climactic Super Bowl showdown, but I don’t think it’s trying to be a sports movie. It takes some interesting views on the afterlife and what should be important to us while we’re alive, but I don’t think it’s trying to ask any deep questions about human existence.
And that refusal to be any one thing, might be the reason that Heaven Can Wait works to the degree it does. It’s no masterpiece or career definer for anyone involved, but it’s constantly changing genre meant it never felt totally predictable or by the numbers. Even though, it is totally predictable and by the numbers. It turns out, a movie can hit all the expected beats, but if it comes at them from an angle that’s only slightly askew, it feels just that little bit more fresh.