Directed by Ron Underwood
Screenplay by Gregory Hansen & Erik Hansen and Brent Maddock & S. S. Wilson
Starring Robert Downey, Jr, Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Sizemore, David Paymer, Elisabeth Shue
Robert Downey, Jr. is now a major movie star, but his rise has been anything but easy. He grew up in a movie making family* and made his first appearance at the age of five. As an adult, he quickly established himself as one of the most respected actors in Hollywood. In 1992, he got an Oscar nomination playing the lead in Chaplin and it looked like he might establish himself as a major star. His first movie after the nomination was the delightful fantasy Heart and Souls.
It open in 1959. A couple is rushing to the hospital late at night to have their first child when it collides with a bus. Four strangers are killed in the accident: Harrison Winslow (Charles Grodin), Penny Washington (Alfre Woodard), Julia (Kyra Sedgwich), and Milo Peck (Tom Sizemore). But their ghosts cannot move on, and are attached to the newborn child, Thomas Riley. So they act as his guardians, giving him advice and helping him along -- until the day when they realize that others think Thomas is carrying his "imaginary playmate" thing longer than is deemed healthy.** So the group vanishes. Thomas is devastated.
Thirty years later, Thomas (Downey) is a sharklike businessman who doesn't like commitment, frustrating his girlfriend Anne (Elizabeth Shue). Meanwhile the ghosts (who are still on Earth) are told by the bus driver (David Paymer) that the they need to complete the unfinished business of their lives to go to heaven. And the only way they do this is through Thomas.
Downey is first rate. One of the conceits of the film is that the ghosts can possess him, and Downey makes you believe that there is a very different character taking him over. His slow change from cold businessman to a man conscious of his failings and willing to share that.
The cast is superb. At the time, they had three Oscar nominees among them (Downey, Woodard, and Paymer), and they and others have been nominated for Oscars, Emmys***, and Golden Globes since. They bring the characters to life.
But the movie's old fashioned virtues may have been its downfall. It was released in August, a sure sign the studio didn't care for it, and got little critical notice. It did get nominated for a bunch of Saturn Awards, but no one pays much attention to them, and the box office was pretty dismal.
Director Ron Underwood -- who had scored with the hits Tremors and City Slickers -- started a personal decline that led to the megaflop The Adventures of Pluto Nash. He now works regularly in TV**** but hasn't had the chance to make more films.
In a way, theme of the film -- redemption -- has a parallel to the life of Robert Downey, Jr. Downey soon got into trouble with drugs and was arrested several times and spent time in prison. But, like his character, and all the characters in the film, he was able to turn his life around and is now a top star. Maybe if he paid attention to what the movie was saying, he would have been successful much sooner.
*His father directed the cult classic Putney Swope.
**Of course, in fiction, imaginary playmates never turn out to be imaginary.
***Grodin and Woodard were winners, Grodin for writing.
****As I write this, he had directed the episode of Castle that showed earlier this week.