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September 28th, 2005


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10:26 am

The New York Times
September 25, 2005
Reading From Left to Right
By A. O. SCOTT





AT the beginning of "Just Like Heaven," Elizabeth Masterson, a medical
resident played by Reese Witherspoon, leaves work after more than 24
straight hours of emergency-room duty and drives out into darkness and
pouring rain, then promptly smashes head-on into a truck. If you
haven't already seen the movie, it will spoil nothing to tell you that
the accident, discreetly shown as a "Six Feet Under"-style whiteout, is
not fatal. After all, what romantic comedy in its right mind would kill
off Reese Witherspoon in the first act? And "Just Like Heaven," which
opened last weekend to a solid $16.5 million box-office take is, in
more than one sense, a movie very much in its right mind. Elizabeth
survives, but the film itself provides the latest evidence that the
myth of a monolithically liberal Hollywood is dead.



Let's skip, for the moment, yet another argument about whether it was
ever really alive. The notion that the American film industry is a
hotbed of left-wing propaganda is a venerable one, and some determined
demagogues will cling to it no matter what the studios do. But the
studios themselves, especially after the stunning success of Mel
Gibson's independently financed "The Passion of the Christ," have tried
to strengthen their connection with religious and social conservatives,
who represent not only a political constituency but a large and
powerful segment of the market. As is often the case when it comes to
reaching new audiences, the big movie companies have lagged a bit
behind other show-business sectors, which is to say behind their own
corporate siblings. Christian music has crossed over onto the pop and
hip-hop charts, while television has found room on broadcast and cable
channels for programming attuned to conservative sensibilities.



One reason for this delay is that movies - big movies, hit movies,
movie-star movies - remain one of the few pop-cultural forms that are
supposed to appeal to everyone. The oldest and fondest dream in
Hollywood has been that it might represent, and thus sell tickets to, a
public ruled by harmony and consensus. Those ideals may seem especially
hard to come by these days, but we should not let old movies convince
us that the old days were that much less contentious than the present.
Indeed, the divisive aspects of American life - the half-hidden
conflicts of race, class, place and creed - have traditionally been
smoothed over on screen.



But there is an equally long tradition of trying to see through the
pretty, pandering pictures. Hunting for ideological subtexts in
Hollywood movies is a critical parlor game. Many a term paper has been
written decoding the varieties of cold war paranoia latent in the
westerns and science-fiction movies of the 1950's. Now, thanks to the
culture wars and the Internet, the game of ideological unmasking is one
that more and more people are playing. With increasing frequency, the
ideology they are uncovering is conservative, and it seems to spring
less from the cultural unconscious than from careful premeditation.



Last fall, "The Incredibles" celebrated Ayn Randian libertarian
individualism and the suburban nuclear family, while the naughty
puppets of "Team America" satirized left-wing celebrity activism and
defended American global power even as they mocked its excesses. More
recently we have learned that flightless Antarctic birds, according to
some fans of "March of the Penguins," can be seen as big-screen
embodiments of the kind of traditional domestic values that
back-sliding humans have all but abandoned, as well as proof that
divine intention, rather than blind chance, is the engine of creation.
I may be the only person who thought "The Island," this summer's
Michael Bay flop about human clones bred for commercial use, indirectly
argues the Bush administration's position on stem cell research, but I
have not been alone in discerning lessons on intelligent design and
other faith-based matters amid the spooky effects of "The Exorcism of
Emily Rose." That movie, by the way, came in a close second behind
"Just Like Heaven" at the box office last week, following an initial
weekend in which it earned more than $30 million, one of the strongest
September openings ever.



The objection to such message-hunting, whether it seeks hidden agendas
of the left or the right, and whether it applauds or scorns those
agendas, is always the same: it's only a movie. And what is so
fascinating about "Just Like Heaven" is that it is, very emphatically,
only a movie, the kind of fluffy diversion that viewers seek out on
first dates or after a stressful work week. Its central couple - Ms.
Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo - meet cute in a gorgeous apartment to
which both lay claim. Their blossoming romance faces the usual
obstacles, as well as some that are not so usual. For one thing, they
can't stand each other; for another, one of them is a disembodied
spirit visible only to her unwilling roommate.



So far, no obvious Republican Party talking points. This is not a movie
that, at least at first, wears its politics on its sleeve. It takes
place in San Francisco, perhaps the bluest city in one of the bluer
states in the union, in a milieu of entitled urban professionals. Mr.
Ruffalo, sad, scruffy and sweet as ever, brings a decided alt-culture
vibe with him wherever he goes. With his dark, baggy sweaters and his
slow, tentative line readings, he represents a new movie type decidedly
at odds with the norms of movie masculinity: the shy, passive urban
hipster as romantic ideal.



But a movie that looks at first like a soft, supernatural variation on
the urban singleton themes of "Sex and the City," by the end comes to
seem like a belated brief in the Terri Schiavo case. (If you insist on
being surprised by the plot of "Just Like Heaven," it might be best to
stop reading now). Elizabeth, as it happens, is not dead, but rather in
a coma from which she is given little chance of awakening. To make
matters worse - and to set up a madcap climax in which Donal Logue
rescues the film's faltering sense of humor - she has signed a living
will, which her loving sister, urged on by an unprincipled doctor, is
determined to enforce. But Elizabeth's spirit, along with Mr. Ruffalo's
character, David, has second thoughts because she is so obviously
alive, and the two must race to prevent the plug from being pulled,
which means running through hospital corridors pushing a comatose
patient on a gurney.



Would I have been happier if Elizabeth died? The very absurdity of the
question - what kind of romantic comedy would that be? - is evidence of
the film's ingenuity. Who could possibly take the side of medical
judgment when love, family, supernatural forces and the very laws of
genre are on the other side? And who would bother to notice that the
villainous, materialistic doctor, despite having the religiously
neutral last name Rushton, is played by Ben Shenkman, a bit of casting
that suggests a faint, deniable whiff of anti-Semitism? Similarly, it
can't mean much that Elizabeth, the ambitious career woman, is sad and
unfulfilled in contrast to her married, stay-at-home-mom sister. Or
that the last word you hear (uttered by Jon Heder, first seen in
"Napoleon Dynamite") is "righteous."



The ingenuity of "Just Like Heaven" is that it does not insist on its
righteousness. Its spiritual conceits are not associated with the
doctrines of any particular religion, and its humor, while studiously
clean, never feels prim or self-conscious. "Emily Rose," which also
casts doctors among its villains and favors supernaturalism over
science, is a bit more overt with its message. While "Just Like Heaven"
is content with a vague, ecumenical supernaturalism, "Emily Rose" wants
to tell you, like the old Louvin Brothers song, that Satan is real. Or,
at the very least, that we should be open to the possibility that
demonic possession might offer a better explanation for the title
character's torments than the diagnoses listed in the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual.



Now, of course, this in itself hardly distinguishes the movie from
others of its kind. As Ross Douthat, an astute blogger and journalist,
has pointed out online, "the horror movie is the most conservative and
religion-friendly genre in Hollywood, and the message of devil-related
movies, in particular, is almost always that science is wrong." But the
means by which this message is delivered is a bit unusual, not only for
its didacticism, but also because the movie's climactic arguments are
as much a plea for open-mindedness and pluralism as a
fire-and-brimstone sermon on the nature of evil. Rather like the
promoters of intelligent design, the filmmakers present a mild, almost
relativistic argument, according to which the reluctance of scientific
experts to rule anything out makes anything possible, and therefore
likely to be true.



Claiming to be based on a true story, it squanders some of its
credibility as a horror movie in lengthy courtroom disquisitions on
faith and reason, topics that figure prominently on the film's Web
site. But it nonetheless holds to the conventions of genre strongly
enough to attract thrill-seeking teenagers, and it also attracted some
impressive actors, including Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson. Mr.
Wilkinson, among other things, underwent a sex change operation in the
HBO movie "Normal," while Ms. Linney received an Oscar nomination for
her role in "Kinsey." Talk about crossover.



Should movies like "Emily Rose," released by Sony, and "Just Like
Heavens," from DreamWorks, be interpreted as peace offerings in the
culture wars, or as canny attempts to open a new front in the endless
battle for the soul of the American public? Will liberals now have a
chance to complain, as conservatives have for so long, that Hollywood
is ideologically biased and out of touch with its audience? Will we
ever be able to sit back and say, "It's only a movie"? I hope not. The
arguments we are having among ourselves are too loud and insistent to
be drowned out or silenced in the false comfort of the movie theater.






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