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Witherspoon proves romance isn't dead

'Til death do us part" has never meant much to the movies - a lot of pulseless people have had on-screen relationships (see "Topper," "Ghost," "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," etc.). Difficult romance always means good drama. But is the romantic landscape really so grim that one has to cruise the afterlife for a date?

Judging by the trailer, "Just Like Heaven" was going to be one more example of postmortem movie love. In fact, the film - a richly romantic, expertly acted comedy - is far more complicated than that, and impossible to discuss without giving a key plot point away. (Warning: major "spoiler" ahead.)

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In it, the wounded, moody David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) sublets a San Francisco apartment, only to find it occupied by a phantasm named Elizabeth Masterson (Reese Witherspoon). Once a doctor, she now finds herself considerably less substantial: She walks through walls, she walks out windows; she sits inside the refrigerator and harasses David for having another beer. Early on, the movie is a well-executed comedy with David trying to figure out if he's crazy, if she's really dead, and whether a few ancient spells and exorcisms might cast out the squatting spirit.

You don't really want to think about how DOA this movie might have been without its stars. Ruffalo and Witherspoon are rare actors of the type who can actually handle comedy and drama. Director Mark Waters ("Mean Girls") has also proven himself a deft hand with complicated humor. But the parties involved all have to be good, because the film wades into troubling waters (no pun intended).

Elizabeth, with her control-freak personality intact but her body a vapor, doesn't know why she is where she is, or why David's the only one who can see her. What they learn, during their affectionate and amusing tour of Elizabeth's past (here comes the spoiler), is that her body is in a coma, and that her corporeal self is about to be taken off life support.

Timing, they say, is everything, and it's probably unfortunate for everyone involved that no one will watch "Just Like Heaven" without thinking of Terry Schiavo. All those living wills people made out after the Schiavo case? "Just Like Heaven" will be just as effective in getting them shredded. The thrust of the movie is that a woman who has found love only after falling into a coma, and who expressed a wish not to be kept alive in such a state, is floating around pleading with her unhearing loved ones not to pull the plug.

So as funny and even tender as it all is, "Just Like Heaven" is also horrifying. With or without current events, the movie has a weighty, bordering-on-morbid, subtext. It's a terrific movie. It just happens to be haunted. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for some sexual content.