Hearts and Souls
“Who came up with this ridiculous concept, anyway? Resolve our entire life in one bold stroke?” So asks Charles Grodin’s deceased Harrison Winslow at one point, and it has to be said that Hearts and Souls is, beneath its heart-warming, knockabout surface etc, an odd duck. The movie’s metaphysical conception is one where ghosts/spirits/souls are granted – from on high, it seems – permission to take possession of a human (willingly or unwillingly on the human’s part) in order to work out business they couldn’t when their lives were cut short.
Bus Driver: You’re supposed to use him as a vehicle.
The movie’s thirty-minute opening section finds four recently departed – Kyra Sedgwick’s Julia, Alfre Woodward’s Penny, Tom Sizemore’s Milo and Grodin’s Winslow – sucked into the vicinity of newly born Thomas Reilly (they cannot stray from a very immediate vicinity of his being). Through an angelic omission, they aren’t informed of this situation until 34 years later, which means adult Thomas has transformed into Robert Downey Jr (so the 27-year-old actor would have been playing someone more than half a decade older). But what if they knew from the off? Would they have used his body when he was seven? Wouldn’t that be a little creepy (as it is, they decide to “depart” because they keep getting the kid in trouble, not least through gambling, an implicit condemnation of parents who choose to suppress the abilities of special children)?
Ron Underwood largely skirts over such thorny issues in his flop follow up to hit City Slickers. He has his Tremors co-writing team of Brent Maddock and SS Wilson on board to finesse the screenplay (from Gregory and Erik Hansen, based on their student short), but there are clues this may have been pared down to its – actually about right – 104-minute length. Everything about Thomas’ job disappears from the mix after an early uproarious board meeting, and we never do find out what will happen with the imminent bankruptcy of Patterson (Kurtwood Smith, who surely didn’t agree to appear in just the one scene).
This is one of those affirmative comedies that is fairly low on big laughs because it’s mainly set on being sweet. Perhaps that’s why it flopped. Perhaps it was just too high concept. Or perhaps no one wanted to see now-deceased – David Paymer’s bus driver was at least a couple of decades out when he said “I’ll be back for you in 50 to 60 years” – Downey Jr back then. I mean, they didn’t. Well, aside from his coke dealer. Even with a big star in his corner (Air America) or Oscar prestige (Chaplin) he was box-office poison, which probably didn’t help the wilderness years of the latter half of the ’90s. He was giving some good performances, though, obviously. Chaplin earned him an Oscar nod. Soapdish had great turns from just about everyone.
And he’s flexing his comic chops for all he’s worth here; it’s obvious why he took the role, as he gets to sing (very well, as Harrison), play a black woman (see also Tropic Thunder) in order to connect with her adopted kid(s) again, and Tootsie (well, kind of, but it allows him to sashay and flirt: “You know, Mitchell for an older man, you really are quite attractive”). The boardroom scene is an expert set piece of physical comedy, in which Thomas, possessed by Milo, struggles for control as the latter tries it on (“You know how long it’s been since I’ve had sex?” he asks the sole female board member).
Thomas has become a yuppie banker type during the quartet’s “absence”, possibly about three years too late for relevance. He’s sent out on all the nasty jobs, and has the car phone to prove his credentials (“I hate that phone. He’s always on it”). His early, severed contact with the supernatural has left him a selfish materialist who refuses to get serious in a relationship, currently with Anne (Elisabeth Shue, still getting the thankless girlfriend parts). It takes him very little time to get on board with his reintroduced spooks, though, and he’s dancing down the street with them to Walk Like a Man before long. Thomas went through a slew of child psychologists (“I’m hallucinating again”), which by implication suggests they’re useless (except for Milo, who got something out of it). This is reconfirmed when he attempts to check himself into a looney bin and one of the patients (Chloe Webb) is able to see his invisible friends.
Harrison Winslow: Look at me. I’m not even alive and I’m perspiring.
The against-time pace of the picture is curious, as there’s no chance for extended farewells when the bus driver returns to pick up the not-so-recently deceased, one by one. The now-no-longer Sizemore gets to be likeable-but-not-too-much (because he’s Sizemore). Sedgwick is apple-pie wholesome (see also Born on the Fourth of July) and has to make do with an affirmation to Thomas, since her intended snuffed it in the meantime (which means… perhaps they were supposed to wait this long before understanding the nature of their mission). Grodin is droll and deadpan (“You remember smiling. Open your lips, show me some teeth” sounds like an adlib to me). Woodward is mumsy; it has to be said that the reunion scene with her son Billy (Wren T Brown) is kind of awkward, since the emotional moment is Downey Jr hugging him. Again, though, there’s little chance to ponder its more tenuous choices because the movie doesn’t hang around.
Bus Driver: I did everything I could, but a new life’s being created and it needs a soul now.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there’s a brief intimation of a more strategized cosmology in all this. Obviously, one would generally expect the idea of “things you didn’t complete in your life” to be satisfied in future incarnations, if one subscribes to such an ethos, but this being a Hollywood movie, there’s no such opportunity. Except… when Milo is snatched away, he’s explicitly told that the reason they have to go is because they’re overdue being reborn. One has to wonder, with this and Chances Are, was Downey Jr reaching to express higher concepts amid the haze of uppers, downers and lateral highs?
Hearts and Souls is a perfectly nice little movie, then. It’s very polished looking, from then DP Michael Watkins (certainly more so than the same year’s Point of No Return); he’d move over to TV direction, including Millennium, The X-Files and The Lost Room. The performers play well off each other. It was the start of problems for Underwood’s directorial career, though, with a string of flops culminating in The Adventures of Pluto Nash. A decade later, the deceased ensemble would get something of an inversion with Dead Like Me, where appointed reapers would escort souls to the afterlife. Somewhat darker in hue than this, then, as is Bryan Fuller’s fancy.