Ghost of a Chance

Hollywood's fascination with plots involving benevolent ghosts who interfere in humans' lives peaked with Topper in 1937. Since then it's all been downhill. There have been exceptions -- Heaven Can Wait and All of Me, for example -- but ever since Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore slopped a lump of wet clay onto a potter's wheel and spun it into box office gold, much of the fun has been taken out of the afterlife. In the wake of 1990's insipid Ghost Dad, you'd think filmmakers would have let the supernatural subgenre rest in peace. But they never learn. It's downright dispiriting.

In Heart and Souls, a sort of Herman's Head with friendly ghosts, poor Thomas Reilly has been saddled with not one, but four phantoms. Thomas was born at the precise moment a bus crash claimed the lives of Harrison, who wanted to be an opera singer but couldn't overcome his stage fright; Penny, a devoted mother of three; Milo, a thief with a pompadour and a guilty conscience; and Julia, who botched an opportunity to be with the man she loved. Ironically, four is also the number of writers it took to compose this film's screenplay. Their missed opportunity was the chance to write a cogent script.

And so the freshly dead four become baby Reilly's full-time earthly companions. They have no choice, actually A there's an invisible sphere (love those wacky screenwriters!) around the boy that prevents his ectoplasmic playmates from straying more than ten yards away. So the secret family is always at Thomas's side as he grows up, singing him lullabies and helping him with his schoolwork. Under Milo's tutelage, the boy also picks up a copy of Playboy and places a few bets at the track. It's pretty tame stuff, the occasional laughs resulting from six-year-old Eric Lloyd's uncanny ability to upstage his adult counterparts, a trick he learned playing the recurring role of the young Fred Savage on TV's The Wonder Years.

In the first of many so-manipulative-you-can't-believe-you're-sniffling scenes, the supernatural quartet decides their meddling is keeping young Thomas from leading a normal life. So they say goodbye and make themselves invisible, leaving the lad sitting up in bed bawling his eyes out. Director Ron Underwood (City Slickers, Tremors) lingers on the crying kid for what seems an eternity, coaxing every last tear out of the audience's ducts.

Cut to 27 years later. Why 27 years? So that Thomas's age will approximate that of actor Robert Downey, Jr., who portrays him as an adult, of course. Anyway, the adult Reilly has become a heartless yuppie executive. (Four screenwriters, and the best they can come up with to demonstrate Reilly's cold-bloodedness is his willingness to notify a deadbeat aircraft manufacturer that the creditors Reilly represents will contest the plane-maker's bankruptcy petition and push for liquidation? Where's Simon Legree when you need him?)

Through an arbitrary plot twist (why stop now?), the ghosts find out they were supposed to have been resolving their unfulfilled lives and dreams by temporarily possessing Thomas's body. They've been twiddling their thumbs for 27 years; now they have but a few days, tops, to get the job done. So they reappear to the tight-assed young adult, explain their plight, and start taking care of unfinished business one by one.

If you're still interested by this point, you're a much more forgiving filmgoer than I. One brazen tear-jerking scene after another ensues as Reilly's spectral pals revisit their lost lives. Through it all, the only compensation is Downey, who, apparently still inspired by his eye-opening star turn in Chaplin, gets off a few good moments of physical comedy as the ghosts take over Reilly's body. He's especially funny as the greaser Milo, while his mimicry of Penny walks a fine line between parody and racial stereotype. Downey as Harrison getting his big chance to sing to a packed house is sublime; it won't make anyone forget Steve Martin's half-man, half-woman high jinks in All of Me, but it's funny. Heart and Souls could have used more of it.

You have to wonder about director Underwood. The underrated Tremors was a promising debut, and the popular City Slickers a respectable follow-up. If Heart and Souls succeeds at the box office (the preview audience I saw it with lapped up the cheap sentimentality and guffawed at the goofy gags), credit Downey's likability and a renewed national appetite for slapstick humor. But in truth it's a big drop-off for the director -- sloppy, unfocused, nd marred by inconsistent performances. Charles Grodin (Harrison), Alfre Woodard (Penny), Tom Sizemore (Milo), and Kyra Sedgwick (Julia) sleepwalk through the proceedings with stultifying blandness; none of them is really awful, but neither do they breathe any life into the lame plot. Somebody should have told them the characters are supposed to be dead, not the actors. And that somebody was Underwood.


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