There are a million ways for a talented filmmaker to run aground, but an overabundance of blanding sweetness isn't usually one of them. In the case of Alan Rudolph and "Made in Heaven," some kind of romantic ether seems to have seeped into his brain: He's fogbound, lost on a marshmallowy cloud.
"Made in Heaven" adds a new twist to the old romantic formula of boy meets girl: This time, it's "boy dies, meets girl." The movie's subject is that dream of all dreams: meeting your one true love, your soul mate. The story centers around a solid, small-town Pennsylvania man named Mike (Timothy Hutton), who has dreams of packing up his girlfriend, Brenda (Mare Winningham), and moving to California. But Mike isn't enough of an achiever for Brenda -- he's a little vague -- and she decides to marry another, more upwardly mobile suitor. Discouraged but undaunted, Mike sets out for California on his own. But before he's barely out of town, he attempts to rescue a young woman and her children whose car has plunged off a bridge and into a river. He saves them, but not himself. And when he comes to -- and the film's imagery changes from black and white to color -- he realizes he's no longer in Pennsylvania.
What follows is a life-after-death love story. Mike meets Annie (Kelly McGillis) and is an instant goner. There's a hitch, though. Annie, who wears Southern belle curls and sweet, pastelly frocks, is a "new soul," which means she's never been born. And just as the love affair is about to blossom, her time is up and she is drawn earthward to meet her destiny. Naturally, Mike feels gypped and visits Heaven's head man, Emmett (played in a suit and orangish crew cut by a chain-smoking Debra Winger) begging to be sent back to Earth. Emmett reluctantly agrees, but with one stipulation: The couple has only 30 years to find one another in this wide world. The odds are against them, but then what have odds got to do with love?
In films such as "Choose Me," "Songwriter" and "Trouble in Mind," Rudolph has established himself as the movies' prime architect of idiosyncratic romantic fables. He seems to want to pick up where French director Jacques Demy left off with "Lola" and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." But Rudolph doesn't have Demy's heart-sprung exuberance. In "Made in Heaven," he seems to be doing little more than cutting out valentines. The movie's all meringue. While there's something immensely likable about its spirit -- which is an odd combination of hipness and naivete' -- its energy is sapped by Rudolph's dewiness; he can't get any crackle into it.
Although Rudolph has assembled a sumptuous cast, there's not enough edge to the characters. And so it's refreshing when someone like Maureen Stapleton, who plays Mike's aunt, or Ellen Barkin, as a double-crossing vamp, shows up to burn off a little of the haze. Some of the other actors, too, throw off sparks. Winger's performance, in particular, has a streak of impudence and daring. (She plays Emmett as if he were the pit boss at Caesars Palace.) And her toughness is a nice counterpoint to Hutton's dreaminess.
Unfortunately, these bits stand out as random flashes. When you try to think back on the movie, it evaporates. After the couple return to Earth, Rudolph bogs them down in dreary modern-day dilemmas. On a number of occasions, their paths almost cross, but, as the clock runs down, they keep bouncing away from each other.
Most of what happens along the way is whimsical and gratuitous. All that matters, really, is that these two get together, and since this is never much in doubt, the movie loses tension.
Rudolph's willingness to believe in greeting-card dreams of happily-ever-after may be the movie's saving grace. It puts you in a forgiving mood. And it's refreshing, nowadays, not to have romance turned into a horror show. The movie's airiness wafts you along. It's a pleasant experience, but, in this case, not a particularly singular one.
Made in Heaven, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some suggestive material.