Is there any actor who has tried so many things that is as underrated as Mark Ruffalo? It is possible. After all, Hollywood has been around for a long time. But Ruffalo has a strong claim to that throne. It may seem odd to call him underrated, considering he is a key component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has thus starred in some of the biggest and most profitable movies of all time. But remember, he only got the role of Bruce Banner after Edward Norton either decided not to return/was fired by Marvel Studios (depending on who you ask). And he is now the only Avenger to not have either a solo movie or series. Even Hawkeye got a show before The Hulk did. That’s some real underrating.
But before he was the MCU’s angriest and/or cheesiest hero, Mark Ruffalo tried pretty much every genre of movie that you can think of. And one of those movies, Just Like Heaven, is currently in the top ten most watched movies on Netflix USA. So even if Ruffalo does not always get the credit he deserves, at least audiences are out there watching. Before he joined the MCU and presumably is forever bonded to Kevin Feige’s vision of the world, Ruffalo was considered an actor’s actor. He was respected, but rarely cast in leads. He had been in films as varied as John Woo’s World War II film Windtalkers with Nicolas Cage, a Western by former Hulk director Ang Lee called Ride with the Devil, and the Meg Ryan erotic thriller In the Cut. He had popped up in small roles in movies as varied as the critically acclaimed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the less critically acclaimed slasher film The Dentist. But when Ruffalo really wanted to go for it, he went for the sure-fire thing: a romantic comedy with Reese Witherspoon.
And that is what Just Like Heaven is, the most crowd-pleasing of all kinds of films. That is not a knock on Reese Witherspoon (or Mark Ruffalo). Since she picked up the romcom baton that Meg Ryan discarded, she has run with it, but she has also made weird movies like the acidic high school satire Election and the HBO prestige murder mystery series Big Little Lies. To be fair, Just Like Heaven is far weirder than your average romantic comedy. The best examples of its genre (usually starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks) have some kind of separation between its leads, like distance or economic rivalry, that is bridged by something like say, a call-in radio show or AOL. Just Like Heaven does that too, except the separator is death and the bridge is an apartment in San Francisco.
Just Like Heaven is adapted from a popular French novel by Marc Levy called If Only It Were True, which already puts it a step above a lot of romcoms. The basic plot is that Reese Witherspoon is a workaholic doctor (romcom trope alert) who gets into a serious car accident. A short time jump later, Mark Ruffalo is a heartbroken architect (romcom trope alert #2) who moves into her vacant apartment. Shortly thereafter, it becomes apparent that Witherspoon’s spirit is still inhabiting the apartment, refusing to believe that she is dead. She and Ruffalo begin to communicate, kind of like a sexier version of The Sixth Sense, and eventually they fall in love. In this, it is part of the long tradition of romcoms with ghost love interests like Truly, Madly, Deeply and High Spirits.
The movie ends by revealing that Reese Witherspoon is in a coma, not dead, and not only can Mark Ruffalo see her, but there’s a lot of other weird stuff around, like a psychic bookstore clerk played by Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder. In the end, Witherspoon comes back to life, but without memories of their relationship. But then, she gets them back! It is a happy ending, except for the truly bizarre ending in the movie’s last shots are of Heder on a rooftop staring into a snowglobe.
Just Like Heaven was a commercial success, doubling its $50 million budget. But it had the sad fate of far too many romcoms, fading from popular memory almost immediately. Critics never loved it, and even the weirdness of its plot couldn’t put it up there with other oddball romantic comedies like While You Were Sleeping. Thankfully, Netflix has given it a second life, and reminded us all of Mark Ruffalo’s weird range.