'Heart and Souls': Not nearly enough


"Heart and Souls"

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Charles Grodin and Alfre Woodard

Directed by Ron Underwood

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13

** 1/2

5/8 There are some great movie moments in "Heart and Souls," but not enough of them to matter. This is another one of those epiphany machines that's calculated to grind on gears so fine they con your eyes and sinuses into producing copious amounts of fluid. You're not supposed to walk out of the theater so much as surf out, on a banzai pipeline of mucus, fake grief and cheesy triumph.

And I know that if I dare pan this film, by Wednesday at least four or five earnest handwritten missives, palpitating with rage and betrayal, will arrive at my desk, telling me that I don't have a heart and soul, that I'm too critical, that I ought to get a life. Well, so be it. But the movie still doesn't quite work, at least not when compared to some of the great sniveling weepies of our century like "It's a Wonderful Life," or "An Affair to Remember," which get the average recon Marine sobbing in the aisle.

Set in that weird celestial zone of the non-denominational religious miracle, "Heart and Souls" watches as four late '50s schnooks get vaporized in a bus accident but by some bureaucratic mistake (heaven is visualized as a poorly administered public transportation agency) are allowed to hang around in the ether for about 30 years. They are bizarrely attached to the child who was being born in the automobile that their bus driver swerved to avoided hitting, thereby dooming himself and his four passengers.

The rules of this place are never explained, so what happens has an arbitrary feel to it. "Oh, they can do that?" you keep thinking when some new transmogrification is unveiled without preparation. But the gist of the piece seems to be that ultimately through him, they'll be able to bring to closure one little drama in their own unfinished lives, and therefore move up to that big old bus carburetor cleansing fixture in the sky. The first joke is that the baby grows up to be a somewhat stuffy and cold-blooded yuppie played by Robert Downey Jr. The second joke is that nobody tells the four souls until almost too late, so they have to get it done in a frenzied week.

The four souls are played by Charles Grodin, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Sizemore and Alfre Woodard as, respectively, a thwarted opera singer, a young woman in love, a petty thief and a single mother. Of the four, by far Grodin and Woodard are the most enchanting. Grodin brings that twisted-nerd repression that is such a specialty of his to the part, and his portrayal of a scared little man who blew the one shot he had at mediocrity is extremely affecting.

Woodard also has some heartfelt moments as a mother desperate to find out what happened to her children; she's a great actress, who never goes too far into the bathos front-loaded and jampacked into the screenplay by half the writers in Hollywood (OK, only four of them: Brent Maddock & S. S. Wilson and Gregory Hansen & Erik Hansen, the ampersands denoting teamwork). Woodard shows dignity and restraint all the way through.

Sizemore -- a petty thief grieving over a crime -- barely registers, and Kyra Sedgwick is something of a disaster: Her story is the least interesting but it's given primacy by virtue of being presented last; it doesn't close the movie on the juicy explosion of ickiness the materials seem to demand.

And there's a structural difficulty. We do come to care about the four souls. However, the mechanics of the device mandate that their final triumph can only be achieved by entering Downey's body. So we're cheated of seeing them experience bliss before the last bus comes as, when they enter, they disappear. We're left watching Robert Downey Jr., that most vain of young men, preen through their four Big Moments. It all but defeats the very purpose, low though it may have been, of the film.

But now and then director Ron Underwood (he did "City Slickers") blunders onto imagery more wonderful than his movie deserves. A great scene watches as Downey shuffles down some Francisco hill, surrounded by the four souls, each dancing beautifully to the tune of "Walk Like a Man." What a movie moment, what an American moment: white, black, man, woman, youth, age, all moving in joyous syncopation to a great old song, beaming with love and optimism. Of course it's a shame there isn't a better movie around it.

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