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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

From despair to spun sugar

'Keane' explores urban hopelessness; 'Just Like Heaven' is a lighthearted look at the afterlife


Lodge H. Kerrigan’s Keane is one of the most arresting independent movies in a long time. Hardly light entertainment, the film is a relentless series of close-ups of a desperate young man (Damian Lewis) whose 6-year-old daughter has suddenly disappeared inside New York’s Port Authority bus terminal -- a fairly harrowing place even in normal circumstances.

Or does the girl really exist? There is no shot of her, before or after, and Keane’s face expresses such confusion it is often unclear if he understands what is going on. He tells clerks the girl disappeared some days ago while he was watching from a boarding platform nearby, and his hopelessness possesses a kind of universality. What is mesmerizing is the way Mr. Lewis suggests a range of emotions from fear to rage; each shot becomes a small complete scene.

We soon observe that drinking and drugs have combined to give Keane a dangerous aspect. Though the red-haired actor is actually handsome in repose, if you met him while he was walking distractedly down some squalid city street, you would want to cross to the other side. At the same time, there are hints of an inner gentleness; though he sometimes forgets what he’s looking for, his near-despair is also appealing.

Director Kerrigan simply follows Keane as he wanders across midtown; he doesn’t bother to provide background information and forces the audience to make their own inferences. If Mr. Lewis deserves an Oscar nomination for his ability to suggest the range of urban anxieties, recognition is also due to John Foster’s hand-held camera work. In any case, the ultimate effect of “Keane’s” minimalist art is powerfully upsetting.

Keane appears to be living on disability payments. We’re surprised when he lurches down the corridor of his cheap midtown hotel, knocks on a door and insists on giving some money to Lynn, a desperate young mother (Amy Ryan). Reluctantly, after she determines this is not a proposition, she accepts it, and soon she is inviting him to a simple meal of takeout from the cheap restaurant where she is a waitress. This forces Keane to try to make himself presentable, and there is a human moment as they eat together in her apartment and Keane meets her thoughtful 7-year-old daughter Kira (Abigail Breslin). It’s unclear what problems the mother is dealing with, but the narrative takes on extra urgency when she asks Keane if he can pick up her daughter after school.

The climax of the movie presents the slowly developing friendship between Keane and Kira. He is able to slow down, and she comes to enjoy their excursion, especially when he takes her ice-skating, which she’s never done before. She isn’t even worried when they find a note back at the hotel that her mother has been delayed, and Keane has to tuck her in and lull her to sleep.

“Keane” never allows us to see much further than its desperate protagonist. Despite its uncertainties, this is no horror film, but leaves us with powerful images of urban hopelessness.

The mistitled Just Like Heaven is like spun sugar in comparison. An unpretentious comedy exploiting the long tradition of Hollywood-style afterlife, it stars Reese Witherspoon as Elizabeth Masterson, a hardworking doctor whose hectic emergency-room shift is suddenly followed by a ghastly automobile accident. The next thing you know she’s an immaterial spirit returning to her apartment, only to find David Abbott (Mark Ruffalo) on the couch, drinking beer and enjoying the view of San Francisco. Still in depression after his wife’s death, David has just rented the place and isn’t prepared for someone to come into the bathroom while he’s taking a shower. Elizabeth is bossy and aggressive at first, chiding him for putting his drink down on the table without first placing a coaster under it, but it’s not long before we’re rooting for these two likable people to recognize they were made for each other.

Both lead actors have considerable charm, and this is a romantic comedy that greatly benefits from being so old-fashioned that sex doesn’t take place before the introductions. Here the couple have something to keep them apart, and it’s as difficult for David to come to terms with the fact that he’s living with an apparition as it is for Elizabeth to accept that that’s all she is. When he takes Elizabeth to a bar to let her see how sensible people live, no one notices her, and he begins to realize he needs “metaphysical” help. Fortunately, he locates an esoteric bookstore whose proprietor, Darryl (Jon Heder), offers comic counsel and is even able to see Elizabeth when he visits the apartment.

Director Mark Waters is sure-footed in navigating past all the plot twists. The comedy doesn’t even fall apart when we find out why Elizabeth is a spirit and are forced to observe her older sister (Dina Waters) making an agonizing health care decision. But the movie wisely avoids the area of medical ethics; by this time David knows he wants Elizabeth, even if it means having to surrender his claim to the apartment. He enlists his delightfully incompetent psychiatrist friend (Donal Logue) in attempting a hospital kidnapping, a hectic maneuver that goes farcically wrong. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the details, but will contribute to your medical education by telling you that sometimes the best medicine is just a big kiss.

“Just Like Heaven” won’t solve your theological problems about the afterlife, but enjoying it is only a venial sin.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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