…fare with Millennials and Zoomers? Warren Beatty and Buck Henry‘s romantic fantasy is 45 years old, remember. Too fanciful or would it connect? Are middle-aged and younger people still haunted by the idea of having to die someday? Have they ever not been? When’s the last time a movie about a back-from-the-dead character (or one hopscotching in and out of the eternal) really worked?
Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman has described Heaven Can Wait as “a popular comedy — but really, it’s just a fluffy afterlife fantasy with Beatty at his most meticulously abashed.” And he’s mostly right. 93% of Heaven Can Wait is a fluffy escapist comedy. But the last 12 to 15 minutes are killer. It becomes this WHOLE OTHER THING.
The last scene in that LA Colisseum passageway, the one between Beatty and Julie Christie, is one of the most emotionally affecting, spiritually transporting romantic scenes in movie history.
The film fiddles with the idea that our essence as a person — our settled soul, our eternal centerweight — not only persists through the millenia but would somehow be recognizable to a girlfriend or lover if she happened to run into us in another body. Christie fell in love with Beatty’s Leo Farnsworth and wept when he died, and yet somehow she sensed at the very end that there was something curiously familiar about Beatty’s Tom Jarrett, the Rams quarterback.
This scene (the eye contact between Beatty and Christie is magnificent) is the reason Heaven Can Wait made as much money as it did. Produced for $6 million, it wound up earning $98 million — the equivalent of $419 million in 2022 dollars.
The reason it did so well is that final fantasy scene, and the fact that the movie sold audiences on the notion that we’re all just passing through life and passing through this or that body, but that our spiritual core lives on — that we, in a sense, will never really die. And that even after our time on earth is finished, we’ll move up to heaven and hang out with James Mason and Buck Henry and other angels in business suits.
That’s not “fluffy” — that’s about as primal as it gets. We’re all going to die some day, and it’s enormously comforting to not only imagine but temporarily believe that death is not the end, but just a way station into the next realm. Heaven Can Wait sold a gentle little fantasy that made everyone feel awfully damn good.