By Brad Tytel

There are two movies in theaters right now that deal with ridding oneself of unwanted spirits — last week’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and the newly opened Reese Witherspoon vehicle, Just Like Heaven. Reviews of Emily Rose don’t shy away from its obvious religious interests. It is, after all, the story of a cynical lawyer defending a priest on trial for negligent homicide in the death of a young woman during a church-sanctioned exorcism. Meanwhile, reviewers of Just Like Heaven enjoy more leeway in how they discuss the movie’s religious implications. The film, which The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday describes as a “featherweight romantic comedy,” takes a much lighter look at the those eternal questions re: the great beyond. The film may be fluff, but what’s striking about the review is how Hornaday describes Just Like Heaven‘s metaphysics: “Elizabeth,” she notes, “isn’t a real woman but a spirit visiting from another dimension.” So, would Just Like Dimension X would have been a more appropriate title? Is the titular Heaven nothing more than a punchline?

Romantic comedies as a genre use fate and faith to overcome the improbability of their plotlines. Yet critics describe this romantic comedy of a ghost story — the very premise of which invokes a variety of religious belief and an acceptance of something miraculous — in the blandest possible language of neutrality. Like The New York Times, Roger Ebert, the Daily News, and CNN, Hornaday’s Post review never mentions god (or gods). There’s nary a reference to religion theory in a movie about the afterlife. Or is there? The ghost in Just Like Heaven? Turns out she’s not dead, but in a coma, and about to be removed from life support. It sounds familiar. The reviewers thinks so, too. Hornaday writes that the issues of this romantic comedy “seem more at home in the pronouncements of Rep. Tom DeLay.” The Daily News’ Jami Bernard is more blunt. The film, writes Bernard, is a “faith-based diatribe against medical science. Like last week’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, this is propaganda disguised as a popcorn movie.”

So the ghosts are from another dimension, but the politics are all-too-this-worldly Christian Right? Suddenly this fluffy comedy has some surprisingly relevant bite.