Beginning at the ending

Celebrating Twilight Zone mysticism

Published: Nov 06 2017, 01:01:am

Friday, August 13, 1993.

HEART AND SOULS. Written by Brent Maddock, S.S. Wilson, Gregory Hansen and Erik Hansen. Music by Marc Shaiman. Directed by Ron Underwood. Running time: 104 minutes.
EVER GET THE FEELING that your whole life has been a cosmic clerical error?
    San Francisco merchant banker Thomas Reilly (Robert Downey Jr.) does, wearing it with the haunted look of a man afraid that the end is nigh. Despite the aggressively affectionate attentions of a good and beautiful woman named Anne (Elisabeth Shue), he can't make the all-important commitment.
    Reilly has a secret. For the first seven years of his life, little Tommy (Eric Lloyd) was convinced that his "imaginary friends" were real.
    Then, one night in 1966, they said goodbye and disappeared.
    He cried, mourning their loss. Eventually, he got therapy and got on with his life.
    And now, suddenly, his childhood "friend" Milo Peck (Tom Sizemore) is sitting in his car's passenger seat.
    "The hallucinations are back!" Reilly shouts, spinning out of control.
    Four ends are a beginning in director Ron Underwood's divinely diverting Heart and Souls. An afterlife fantasy, his film is one of those spiritually suspect romances in which death is not an end but a passage to a new, more comic state of being.
    It opens on a dark and stormy night in 1959. Together with comedy club waitress Julia (Kyra Sedgwick), switchboard operator Penny Washinton (Alfre Woodard) and aspiring opera singer Harrison Winslow (Charles Grodin), petty thief Milo is killed when the Number 4 Terminal bus spins out of control and plunges off a bridge.
    As their souls leave their bodies — and don't you just love those computer-enhanced special effects? — a baby is born to Eva Reilly (Lisa Lucas) in the nearby Nash Rambler. The new life exerts a magnetic attraction upon the newly lost ones.
    Underwood, a sharp new directorial talent, has fun with some of the more beguiling (and photogenic) ideas at the heart of New Age folklore: reincarnation, angelic possession and return visits from the Hereafter to "make things right."
    These are all fine, fuzzy-pink concepts and they are especially useful for storytellers afraid of offending orthodox believers. They served Alan Rudolph, whose Made in Heaven (1987) was one of the first movies to depict Paradise as a Club Med-like, soul-powered recycling depot.
    In 1991's Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks paid a visit to Judgment City, a Shirley MacLaine-inspired vision of the Eternal. Needless to say, all such films are feel-good fantasies without any basis in either science or mainstream religion.
    When deftly handled, though, they can be positive, life-affirming entertainment. Underwood, who proved his mettle with such comic charmers as 1990’s Tremors and City Slickers (1991), has deft down to a science.
    In Heart and Souls, his four entities have no idea why they're stuck to Tommy's aura. Then, 33 years after their detachment from corporeal being, their driver Hal (David Paymer) reappears, bus and all.
    There's been a bit of an error, folks. You're really not supposed to be here. Didn't the angel tell you about your fixed time allotment for making things right?
    What angel?
    Oops! And now the Great Clock is ticking, forcing the spooks to reappear and enlist Reilly's help in some retroactive justification.
    It's pure whimsy, of course. Blessed with a well-polished screenplay and an impressive acting ensemble, Underwood provides us with a fine, carefully controlled example of Twilight Zone mysticism.
    Muscling in on the sweetly spiritual style of comedy that has been the special preserve of Tom (Big; Joe Versus the Volcano) Hanks, Downey is up to both the physical and emotional challenges of his role. In Underwood's Heart and Souls, he's part of a winning team.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1993. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Although I didn’t use the term in the above review, Heart and Souls is delightfully representative of the movie genre known as "film blanc." Coined by Fayetteville State University English professor Peter Valenti in his 1978 Journal of Popular Film paper “The ‘Film Blanc’: Suggestions for a Variety of Fantasy, 1940-45,” it describes the kind of afterlife comedy first seen during the Second World War. Unlike the dark urban realities of film noir, movies in which life is an out-of-control spiral into desperation, crime and betrayal, the film blanc is about ultimate redemption. According to Valenti, it began with 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan — remade in 1978 by writer-director Warren Beatty as Heaven Can Wait — the story of a boxer whose death in a plane crash is deemed to be a cosmic clerical error. (Mr. Jordan is the angelic bureaucrat whose job it is to set things right.) Primarily an American genre, Valenti’s film blanc shows us a world in which “the forces of light and life (are) triumphant over darkness and death.”
    Heart and Souls was director Ron Underwood’s third theatrical feature film. I’d really liked his movie debut, the low-budget 1990 shock comedy Tremors. A loving homage to the small-town creature features of the 1950s, it spawned a four-sequel, direct-to-home video franchise. His second feature, 1991’s City Slickers, was a satire of urban cowboys and Western nostalgia for which the seemingly indestructible Jack Palance finally won an Academy Award. After Heart and Souls, Underwood paired Michael Keaton and Geena Davis in 1994’s Speechless. A timely comedy about political speechwriters who become romantically involved while working for rival gubernatorial candidates in New Mexico, its financial failure was something of a setback. Lukewarm audience response to his 1998 remake of the big ape epic Mighty Joe Young resulted in even more money lost to its producers. Then came a sci-fi comedy, The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002), an Eddie Murphy movie that’s been described as “one of the biggest boxoffice bombs in history.”  
    For most of the 21st century, Underwood has made his living as a television director. His talent for otherworldly whimsy fit well with made-for-TV Christmas movies, and he made three in 2006: Santa Baby and Holiday in Handcuffs (both shot in Calgary) and The Year Without Santa Claus (in Louisiana); He returned to Calgary in 2009 for Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe and to Vancouver in 2011 for Deck the Halls.  Directing TV series episodes involves much time on the road. In recent years, he has touched down in Vancouver to work on such shows as Reaper (2007), Hellcats (2010), Chaos (2011), Once Upon A Time (2012-2017), Dead of Summer (2016) and No Tomorrow (2016). Ron Underwood turns 64 today (November 6).