Heaven Can Wait (1978), directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry

heaven can wait posterWhat kind of legacy will you leave the world? When will I complete my mission on earth? Can I explain why is it that some people die in the prime of youth and others live until old age? The Talmud tells us that these questions are unanswerable by men, but can only be answered by God from the aspect of eternity. Heaven Can Wait, a romantic fantasy, raises these questions without definitively answering them. What the movie does do is suggest some possible approaches to how we understand tragedy.

Joe Pendleton, backup quarterback for the LA Rams, is given an opportunity to start. On that fateful day, he is struck by a car as he is bicycling through a tunnel. The next scene reveals that Joe is now in some way station in the clouds about to depart for the afterlife. Escorted by two men, Joe discovers that his death is a divine mistake carried out by a first-time escort who, before Joe died, plucked him away from life. The escort tries to remedy the situation, but is too late. Joe has been cremated and there is no body in which to place him.

Mr. Jordan, one of the escorts, presents Joe with several possible choices, and Joe selects the body of millionaire Leo Farnsworth. His choice is motivated by a desire to develop a relationship with Betty Logan, a teacher who is an advocate for a small town that is about to be taken over by one of Mr. Farnsworth’s business empires.

Joe begins to live the life of Farnsworth, but is bothered by Farnsworth’s ethics and lifestyle. He expresses his feelings at a board meeting, which unnerves all the board members. They do not understand how a tough-minded CEO with ruthless financial goals can change into a liberal, sensitive executive with genuine compassion for the little man affected by board decisions taken many miles away.

Moreover, Joe still misses football. He decides to contact his old trainer Max, asking him to train him for a return to the Rams. To solidify his chances to play, he buys the team and sets up a scrimmage in which he is the quarterback. After some initial setbacks, he convinces the team that, indeed, he can play at a professional level. However, all his plans fall apart when his escort reappears to inform him that he can no longer use Farnsworth’s body.

How this dilemma is resolved is the stuff of fantasy. What sticks in my mind, however, are two ideas that are embedded in the film. Firstly, how long we live is not in our control. We have free will, but it is limited. We can influence our future but we cannot determine it. Secondly, how do we measure our life, by the years we live or by the way we live our years?

Heaven Can Wait suggests that each of us has a mission. Sometimes that mission is accomplished over the span of many years and sometimes it is completed in a very short time. We all know people who live long lives but who accomplish very little. There are others who live brief lives, but lives packed with meaning and accomplishment. In truth, we do not know why bad things happen. Such matters are left to God who sees the continuum of past, present, and future. Mere mortals can only see the present. Perhaps when we hear about or experience the premature passing of a loved one, it is useful to contemplate that, from the aspect of eternity, a life well lived, even for a brief time, is part of a larger divine plan that guarantees meaning to every life.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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