You could certainly make the plotline of Chances Are unfold as something altogether more sinister – à la The Reincarnation of Peter Proud – or perhaps even, under the tutelage of someone like Robert Zemeckis, coax a lighter, frothier version to the screen (after all, he made the incestuous undertones of Back to the Future seem, you know, alright). But as envisaged by Emile Ardolino – of Dirty Dancing, and subsequently Sister Act – there’s only ever something slightly icky about the scenario: deceased husband returns in another body, starts dating daughter, and then makes the moves on his former wife. Turning that into a feel-good romcom was always going to be an uphill struggle. Hence Chances Are flopped.
Of course, Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey Jr and Ryan O’Neal (and Mary Stuart Masterson, for that matter) not being remotely box-office draws at this point likely didn’t help any. But still. The chances (are) of an immediate/intimate relation returning to the mortal realm and hooking up with their offspring are purely speculative on a metaphysical scale, but I’d nevertheless guess they’re pretty remote (as in: who would it really serve, spiritual-development-wise, in wangling such a deal?) Certainly, I’d doubt they’re frequent enough to justify the amount of time Hollywood spends on the idea (see also Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, but brace yourself for even more uncomfortable viewing).
Sure, in the reincarnation scenario, every permutation of parent/child/partner is quite plausibly played out at some point over the expanse of lives, but tackling such conceptions in a manner this – for want of a better word – puerile is going to invite all the kinds of charges Hollywood is best known for. You know, like: “It’s okay to have a thing with your kid if you’re convinced there’s some eternal connection between you. Why, it’s just the way the universe works!” And if you want to avoid that kind of accusation, probably best not to stoke the fire. Chances Are might have just settled for the relationship between Alex/Louie (Downey Jr, who does make for a passing refresh of Christopher McDonald as his former self) and Corinne (Cybill), rather than stacking the deck against success by putting him in a relationship with Corinne’s daughter Miranda (Masterson) too.
There are other problems with Chances Are, however. Cybill would depart the big screen as quickly as she returned (Texasville aside – which also flopped – you won’t find her headlining again until 2000, as a blip). Moonlighting had done her career wonders, and she’d find further success and regular gigs on TV going forward, but she was very much Peter Bogdanovich’s muse and possessed of a very narrow range. Indeed, there’s a sense here that shallow Cybill and empty-headed Ryan O’Neal are obvious soulmates, both occupying an idealised, early-70s superficiality, so their ending up together seems entirely appropriate.
What doesn’t is any bean counter thinking they’d bring in audiences two decades after their peak. Obviously, O’Neal’s less-than-private life is a whole kettle of fish – that hitting on Tatum at a wedding thing came subsequent to this movie – but his unrequited doormat Phillip is actually semi-likeable. Indeed, I was slightly wrongfooted (I’m sure I’d seen this before, but I couldn’t remember the plot) that he’d turn out to be a sleazebag, particularly given his confession to Louie at the opening wedding that he loves Corrine.
We’re also in smug young RDJ territory here, a reminder – being out of his gourd aside – of why it took him another two decades to become a box-office draw. His performance is a little desperate; you’re really looking for something more assured. But as I noted in respect of Hearts and Souls, it’s suggestive that he was pursuing metaphysical fare around this time, and that Mel Gibson stuck by him during his travails (Downey Jr is no more, so either he was Vril’d or he lost sight of the horizon at some point). There’s more chemistry between him and Masterson than with Cybill; Masterson is allotted a fairly thankless third-wheel part, even if ending up with Alex makes for an age-appropriate – rather than father-daughter appropriate – conclusion. Quite why she exclaims “I want details” upon learning of her mother’s rumpo with Ryan, I don’t know, any more than suggesting he should “attack mom once and for all and get this over with” as an expression of his passion.
Heaven is your stand-issue, low-lying-dry-ice affair. Louie is suffering from “Hopeless case attachment”. Rather alarmingly, amnesia of prior existences is “embodied” by giving souls a shot (“And you… forgot to give him his inoculation? What if he remembers?”), the omission of which engenders the hasty Louie/Alex his romcom hijinks. Said shot is administered much later, but it’s all rather clumsy, What, so he then doesn’t remember what he (Alex) did with her (Corinne): all their interactions? While she (Corinne) and he (Phillip) know about the past life, and are completely okay with him (Alex) hooking up with her (Miranda)? Perhaps they’re relying on self-denial. Or they’re very spiritually aware. Phillip admits “I’m just a dumb newspaper man. I believe in God and Glasnost… I believe in things you can touch”. Which seems slightly oxymoronic – you can’t touch God unless he’s played by George Burns, and that’s obviously the last thing anyone would want, even George – but really means he believes what he’s told to believe, so he’s an ideal candidate for working in media, which thrives on selling people the beliefs they’re told to sell them.
There are a few odd tics here. Ben Bradlee appears at The Washington Post, played by Henderson Forsythe and you wonder quite why, being as this is a fantasy movie. There’s a scene where Corinne tells Alex – confessing his Louie-ness – to leave her office, and there’s a strong impression that should be it between them and he should be out on his ear (he’s staying at her house). But no, a couple of scenes later, he’s in a tux ready to attend a gala do. By rights, one should have upped and gone (Alex) or the other introduced the hard line. Did they cut something? A plotline regarding a corrupt judge (Josef Summer) in 1963 is reintroduced at the very end, somewhat implausibly. It might have more juice, had Louie died in an intentional mob hit-and-run, but it seems it was an accident. Both juniors are Yale graduates, so destined to nestle in the bosom of the Elite (he manipulating beliefs, she legalities).
On the thematic level, it seems there is an option for souls to ignore the generally advised routine of reflection and/or healing that’s advised following an incarnation and return with undue speed, so the general thrust of Alex/Louie coming back so suddenly has some precedent (if you want to call it that). There are some nice jabs at tired New-Age beliefs of the sort that offer only superficial rewards. Phillip suggests “… we’re not going to do another séance” (batty Corinne still has pictures of Louie in the fridge and leaves him out cakes). The bookstore flake (Susan Ruttan) advises Alex, who has assured her he doesn’t believe in anything crazy, like he was Cleopatra or Hannibal, “Oh, I know you weren’t Cleopatra. I was!”
Chances Are came at the tail-end of Downey Jr’s teen roles (he was 24), when he was trying to find himself a place in more adult fare (also True Believer). The Oscar nomination for Chaplin a few years later would be something of a false dawn (although, its financial failure was reflective). Chances Are is just too heavy-going in premise to succeed in its ambitions, which is perhaps a surprise, since the one thing you could rely on Ardolino for was a lightness of touch. It’s likely, though, that no degree of finessing could have made the entire affair seem less than a little untoward.