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Heaven Help Us 

Even a simple comedy can come out wrong these days.

Soon Witherspoon, playing a dynamo doctor named Elizabeth Masterson, is back in high gear, tending to patients during 26-hour days like a whirring gizmo. From this, we are supposed to gather that even though she is ferociously committed and successful, Elizabeth dreams of a simpler life among shrubbery. "Just Like Heaven," based on a book by Marc Levy, dumps many conflicting sentiments in the viewer's lap. It is a sweet but insipid love story that works best when you don't spend too much time actually thinking about it.

To get the main plot going, Elizabeth is called on by her sister, operating in identical turbo mode as a harried mom of two squealing little girls. She's trying to get Elizabeth to leave work long enough for a blind date at her house. Unfortunately, Elizabeth is run over by a truck on the way. Into her old apartment moves Ruffalo's David (just that quickly), whose idea of an excellent pad is a comfy couch and a fridge full of beer. What a drag when a pesky phantasm barges in on his melancholy and demands he pick up the cans.

This moment of initial contact offers the most potential — for comedy, character development, romance, what have you. And it is here that the filmmakers — Mark Waters directing from a script by Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon — disappoint the most. There are two perfect low-hanging scenarios for handling this first meeting of man and ghost: Either David could be too apathetic to care that she is in his apartment — which would be hilariously different — or he could spend a good portion of the film slowly coming to grips with the fact, in crazed denial. As it is, David's discovery, shock and acceptance is rotated in and out during a few cursory scenes. The result is symptomatic of the rest. You can feel in every frame the filmmakers' desire to compact and squeeze, to get in all the good parts of the book, when what they really should be doing is expanding on what gives potential to a good movie. The result is flat and unaffecting, a story that lacks any pulse or rhythm.

There are some things that go right. Witherspoon is as charming as ever, and she is well-cast in this role as the slightly stiff straight comic against Ruffalo's bumbler. Some of the funniest scenes involve David and Elizabeth's attempts to get rid of each other. Elizabeth uses the old stratagem of annoyance, while David goes in for crass exorcisms, most of which involve New Age chants and some expert assistance from a stoner psychic played by Jon Heder from "Napoleon Dynamite."

Most of these scenes are made all the more frustrating by a palpable rift between the middling talent of the filmmakers and the chemistry of the actors before them, as if you are watching two flesh-and-blood people living in a world of cardboard. The movie is only truly alive for brief moments. Most of the time it is awfully flat. Did we really need a reference to "Ghostbusters," complete with a riff on the Ray Parker Jr. hit? And how many scenes do you think they could try to save with Heder's surfer-dude ramblings before you want to stick a bar of wax in his mouth?

Most bothersome, though, is how old-fashioned it all is. Though the story seems right out of the 1980s, for the attitude toward gender roles you have to go back much further, perhaps to the 1880s. Witherspoon is a driven, talented professional before her accident. The only thing that can save a wacko female like that, we learn by the closing credits, is a good man. (PG-13) 95 min. **1/2 S





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