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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Heart and Souls': Comedy Wins a Few, Loses a Few

August 13, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How can you stay whimsical when your theme, buried under several tons of Hollywood slick, is the spiritual crisis of modern man? Trust the stars.

"Heart and Souls" (citywide) is a Big Time Cute movie about ectoplasmic chums and last-minute redemption, a bright fantasy-comedy about humanizing yuppies and reviving empathy in the moral wreckage of the '80s. It wins a few, loses a few. It makes us laugh, gets mileage out of the Four Seasons' "Walk Like a Man." In the end, the actors save it, especially two of the actors: star Robert Downey Jr., who may have moved into the Robin Williams-Steve Martin-Whoopi Goldberg category, and supporting actor David Paymer, who never hits a false note.

Downey's Thomas Reilly is the heart of "Heart": a slick-haired corporate clone who lives on his phone, thrives on the deal. And Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick and Tom Sizemore play the four souls trapped with him--all killed in a San Francisco bus crash at the moment Reilly was born, en route to the maternity ward. Paymer is the departed bus driver who pops up 27 years later to zip the spectral quartet off to the great Uptown--or Downtown--after informing them, a little late, that, through Reilly, they had a shot at redeeming their "wasted" lives. And still do.

Comedies with supernatural premises either float buoyantly up through a blizzard of implausibilities or drown in their own whimsy. "Heart and Souls"--which would like to move us as "It's a Wonderful Life," or even "All of Me" once did--almost makes it.

But the picture has two big problems. First: There's nothing very visually arresting, amusing or exciting about four people, whom no one else can see, hanging around together within six feet of Downey. And even that situation isn't milked for the right kind of voluptuous, crazy fun.

Second: Though the script, the soulful quartet and apparently Heaven itself give their blessing to the union of Reilly and girlfriend Anne (Elisabeth Shue), we may have qualms. Why does Anne nag Reilly not about bottom-line sliminess but about giving her his room key? Why does she get mad when she catches him playing hooky from their date by belting out the national anthem at a B.B. King concert--something you'd think might crack her up? Shue's extraordinary prettiness make us like Anne, but it's a chore, since the main value the writers give her to trumpet is "normality." Is she the spiritual heir of Warren Harding?

There's one great opportunity for virtuoso fun here: the chance handed Downey to impersonate the mannerisms of his co-stars whenever one takes over his body. With the delicate, precise mimicry he showed in "Chaplin," he slips delightfully into Woodard's feline assurance, Sizemore's swagger, Sedgwick's sexiness or Grodin's repressions. The character he's playing--the same kind of languid, self-obsessed, inwardly anxious hedonist he played throughout the '80s--isn't deep, but Downey digs something comic out of his superficiality. He's an empty vessel, waiting to be filled up with soul.

"Heart and Souls" was directed and partially co-written by the Ron Underwood-S.S. Wilson-Brent Maddock team and it has some of the virtues of their previous collaborations, "Tremors" and "City Slickers": breezy, sunny liveliness, casual humanism, an attitude of "They may be cliches, but we love 'em anyway!"

"Heart and Souls" (MPAA-rated PG-13 for some sensuality) tries to awaken our sympathies. And sometimes does. It's probably no accident that the movie's heavenly ferryman is a punctilious Jewish bus driver, or that the four souls satelliting around Reilly are all somewhat "outside": a single black woman (Woodard), a blue-collar burglar/macho-man (Sizemore), a would-be bride fleeing marriage (Sedgwick) and Grodin's opera-aspiring recluse--who suggests, at least partially, a gay sensibility. Do nice comedies finish last? Not necessarily. Like most Big Time Cute movies, this one winds up wearing its heart on its sleeve and its soul in its pocket.

'Heart and Souls'

Robert Downey, Jr.: Thomas Reilly

Charles Grodin: Harrison Winslow

Alfre Woodard: Penny Washington

Kyra Sedgwick: Julia

A Universal Pictures presentation of an Alphaville/Stampede Entertainment production. Director Ron Underwood. Producers Nancy Roberts, Sean Daniel. Executive producers Cari-esta Albert, James Jacks. Screenplay by Brent Maddock, S.S. Wilson, Gregory & Erik Hansen. Cinematographer Michael Watkins. Editor O. Nicholas Brown. Costumes Jean-Pierre Dorleac. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design John Muto. Art director Dan Webster. Set designers Luren Polizzi, John Berger. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (for some sensuality).

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