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 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 life the life he missed out on.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Divorce Requires Death
- Eccentric Millionaire: Leo Farnsworth was one already, but Joe occupying his body turns it Up to Eleven for everyone who knows him.
- It Is Not Your Time
- Lie to the Beholder
- MayDecember Romance: Subverted; Joe's around Betty's age, but the body he's occupying... isn't.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Julia and Tony's plans to murder Leo, though they're Played for Laughs until they succeed.
- Newscaster Cameo: Several prominent sportscasters of the era show up, most notably Dick Enberg and Bryant Gumbel.
- 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.
- 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.