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Film / Heaven Can Wait (1978)

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Heaven Can Wait is a 1978 comedy-fantasy film directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry, both of whom also star in it along with James Mason, Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Charles Grodin, Vincent Gardenia, and Dyan Cannon.

The screenplay (written by Beatty, Elaine May, and an uncredited Robert Towne) was adapted from the 1938 stage play of the same name by Harry Segall, which had previously been filmed in 1941 as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and would be remade again in 2001 as Down to Earth.

The story follows Joe Pendleton (Beatty), a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, who is looking forward to leading his team to the Super Bowl when he is involved in a terrible collision with a truck. A guardian angel on his first assignment (Henry) plucks Joe out of his body early in the mistaken belief that his death is imminent, and Pendleton arrives in the afterlife. It is then decided that Pendleton was taken too soon, but as it is too late to return him to his former body—which has already been cremated—he is given a second chance as a millionaire who had been drowned by his lover and secretary. The film follows him taking this opportunity to live the life he missed out on.

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Heaven Can Wait earned nine Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Art Direction. Beatty and Cannon won Golden Globes for their performances, as did the film for Best Picture-Comedy or Musical. As noted above, it's a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and thus has no connection with the 1943 Ernst Lubitsch movie Heaven Can Wait.


Tropes associated with this work:

  • Afterlife Antechamber: What looks like "Heaven" is only a waiting room for the final trip.
  • Afterlife Express: The final trip to Heaven would have been taken aboard a Concorde SST.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: How Joe manages to convince his coach that it's really him in Leo's body.
  • Batman Gambit: A failed one when Tony tries to get Farnsworth killed during the football scrimmage by trying to convince an imposing player that Farnsworth is a racist so he'll go after him harder.
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  • Berserk Button: Do not try to shut Julia up.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Joe finally has the body he wants in Jarrett, who had just died in a freak accident on the field, but he no longer has memories of his old life, meaning that he can't remember Betty. Though the movie ends with a hopeful note that they'll fall in love again as they leave together.
  • Body Surf: While waiting for a suitable body, Joe is parked in the body of an elderly millionaire.
  • Black Comedy: Probably the biggest departure from Here Comes Mr. Jordan is how this film plays Tony and Julia's attempts to kill Leo For Laughs.
  • Call-Back: After finding out that he's probably going to have to leave the body of Farnsworth behind, Joe embraces Betty and says "There's nothing to be afraid of." At the end of the movie, when the lights are turned off in the Coliseum, Joe-as-Tom-Jarrett takes her hand and says the same words, which strikes Betty as something very familiar.
  • The Cameo: Several real-life former Rams players appear, most notably Hall of Famer Deacon Jones.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Chekhov's Cannon. The cannon at Farnsworth's mansion that gets fired after flags are raised and lowered seems confusing when it keeps getting shown earlier in the film, but Tony ends up using the cannon blast as a cover for the fatal gunshot he aims at Leo.
    • Joe's saxophone which in the final locker room scene becomes important as a sign that Joe has now become Tom Jarrett and doesn't remember anything about his past lives.
  • The Comically Serious: The butlers and maids at Farnsworth's house, as they deal with his eccentricities.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The real Farnsworth and his board of directors have plenty of dangerous and environmentally unsound stuff going on.
  • Divorce Requires Death: California is a community proper state, so it would seem that Julia could just divorce Farnsworth and get half. But no, she wants to kill him and get it all.
    • She does reference signing an unfavorable pre-nup though.
  • Eccentric Millionaire: Leo Farnsworth was one already, but Joe occupying his body turns it Up to Eleven for everyone who knows him.
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Tony claims this was the reason that Julia screamed when she saw Fansworth still alive.
  • Eyes Are Mental: Joe makes a reference to how maybe, if Betty sees him again, she'll see something in his eyes and recognize him. At the end she seems to do just that, when she takes a good look at Joe in Tom Jarrett's body.
  • It Is Not Your Time: The Escort plucks Joe up to heaven, because he thought the truck was going to hit him. But Joe wasn't scheduled to due until 2025 and the Escort wound up cheating him out of 47 years of mortal life. So Mr. Jordan has to find Joe another body.
  • Lie to the Beholder: To the viewer, Joe still appears as Warren Beatty. But everyone who looks at him sees Farnsworth.
  • May–December Romance: Subverted; Joe's around Betty's age, but the body he's occupying... isn't.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Joe is saddened when The second new body he gets is his teammate Jarrett, as he had wished the man well in spite of his desire to have a new body as an athlete.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Julia and Tony's plans to murder Leo, though they're Played for Laughs until they succeed.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Sportscasters Dick Enberg, Bryant Gumbel, Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis all turn up.
  • Oh, Crap!: Joe Pendleton and the escort have a subdued version of this as they watch the former's ashes being scattered in the cemetery garden, because they realize at that moment he no longer has a body to be returned to.
    Joe Pendleton: Oh, dear.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with Joe, who has now become Tom Jarrett and forgotten his old life, walking off with Betty into a Maybe Ever After future.
  • Police Are Useless: The detective assigned to Farnsworth's murder largely ignores Max and Betty's claims about the suspects, spends an unusually long time obsessing over Farnsworth's decision not to wear hats anymore and closes the case largely by luck when a gardener finds a piece of evidence while the detective is still barking up the wrong tree.
  • Rasputinian Death: How Tony and Julia view Leo (unaware that he's receiving supernatural help).
  • The Remake: Both is a remake and has a remake.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: The whole plot starts from a escort angel snatching out Joe's soul for his body right before the pile-up due to wanting to spare him some pain, when he wouldn't have actually died.
  • Unconventional Smoothie: It seems that a "liver and whey" shake is part of Joe's training regimen. He also throws in some alfalfa and bean curd.

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