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O'Hara's Wife
(1981)

Director: William Bartman  
Cast:
Ed Asner, Mariette Hartley, Tom Bosley


I like to think that there is some kind of afterlife, that my spirit will live on right after my body gives out its last breath. On occasion I have looked for some guidance or proof of the afterlife, but so far I have been dissatisfied and unconvinced by the various claims I have read. I'll give you an example that I first read in a Jack Chick tract. It's about the story of Lazarus, found in the Luke section of the Bible. In the story, there was a rich man who had every comfort that's possible, while at the gates of the rich man's mansion there was a beggar named Lazarus, who was so sickly and down and out that the dogs licked at his wounds. As it came to be, Lazarus died, and because he was a believer and follower of God, he was carried by the angels to heaven right into Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died, but because he was neither a believer nor a follower, he was delivered right into Hell and eternal suffering. Suffering in Hell, the rich man somehow saw Abraham from afar, and begged Abraham to send Lazarus, "...that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame." However, Abraham responded, "Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted and thou art tormented." Yeah, Abraham, twist the knife, why don't you? The rich man then asked Abraham to send Lazarus to the rich man's five brothers, so they could be warned, but Abraham responded, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." The rich man then said that if one from the dead came to report the afterlife, his brothers would be convinced and would repent. But Abraham responded, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."

Though this came from the Bible, the supposed guide book for how we humans should live our lives, I couldn't accept what was claimed in this Lazarus story. For one thing, I seem to recall that the Bible warns us of false prophets. How can we be absolutely sure that the claims of any prophet, either from the Bible or not, are true? I personally have asked the heavens on several occasions to more or less guide me to prophets that will convince me to follow the right direction, but so far no so-called prophet has proven his case to me. I'm afraid of making a lifestyle choice that might prove itself to be wrong, leading me into eternal torment. Another reason why I frown on the story of Lazarus is the claim that someone from the dead wouldn't be able to convince someone about how the afterlife is like. I can tell you that if one of my dead relatives suddenly appeared in front of me and started to tell me all about the afterlife, I certainly would be listening. They would certainly seem to me to know what the whole life-after-death thing would be like. In fact, ever since I was a small child, I have daydreamed about talking to someone who has passed from this mortal world and now lives in the afterlife. Over the years I have made a considerable list of questions I would ask such a spirit. For example, what is it like right after you die? What is it like in the dimension that you now live in? What do you do all day in that dimension? Do I have to make any lifestyle choices in order to get to the best kind of afterlife possible? Did you manage to come face to face with God? If so, what is God like?

Since you no doubt know that I also happen to have a great interest in movies, you have probably guessed that I have an interest in movies that deal with the afterlife. You would be right - over the years I have watched plenty of such movies, and I have to report that I have been pretty O'Hara's Wifedisappointed by the vast majority of these movies. For one thing, the still-human characters in these movies more often than not prove to be pretty dumb. When a deceased love one suddenly appears to them, they almost never ask those questions I wrote at the end of the second paragraph of this review. But I keep watching movies dealing with the afterlife because of my craving of some reasonable-sounding insight to the afterlife. That's why I picked up O'Hara's Wife when I found an old VHS tape of it for sale, because it deals with someone returning from the dead. The events of the movie center around one Bob O'Hara (Asner, Lou Grant), a workaholic lawyer. He has a brother named Fred (Bosley, Happy Days), as well as two grown children played by Perry Lang (Eight Men Out) and Jodie Foster (The Silence Of The Lambs). But the family member most close to him is his wife Harry (Hartley, Ride The High Country). At the beginning of the movie, Bob and Harry are just about to take their first vacation in twenty years. But the night before they are to leave, Harry collapses from a brain hemorrhage. In short time, she is declared brain dead by the hospital, and the grief-stricken Bob signs the forms to have her taken off life support. After the funeral, he tries to forget the pain of the loss of his wife by throwing himself into his work even more. But one night after more than a month has passed, Bob comes home and hears a familiar voice. It's his wife, who has returned from the dead as a rotting corpse. Just kidding - she's returned as a ghost.

In short notice, Harry makes it her mission to save Bob from staying in a stressful job that will probaby kill him in short notice, and to get him to start fulfilling the dreams he once had decades ago before his job became his priority. And she doesn't care if any of the people close to Bob object or think he's gone crazy. That's the plot of O'Hara's Wife, and if you have seen your fair share of back-from-the-dead comedies as I have, you are probably groaning at this point, and saying something like, "Oh gawd, is this one of those ghost comedies where only the central character can see and hear a ghost, resulting in outside people thinking the central character has gone crazy because he seems to be talking to himself and doing other odd behavior?" Unfortunately, the answer to that question is yes. What makes it worse is that the central character never does the obvious things that would convince the other people that there is a real life ghost he is talking to. Let me explain. Several times, the ghost of Harry is seen picking up objects, and she does this at least once in front of Bob. So Bob would know of this ability she has. If Bob was thinking logically, he would talk to Harry about picking up an object and swinging it around in the air while Bob was with a person doubting that Harry is now an invisible ghost. I think the sight of a floating object would quickly convince people of the existence of a ghost, do you agree? If that wasn't possible, Bob could convince his son or daughter of their mother being a ghost by asking Harry to tell him something about them only she and they would know, and Bob could then tell his son or daughter that fact.

But as I indicated earlier, the character of Bob does not think logically and do anything like those strategies that I mentioned. But it's not just here that he doesn't seem to be thinking like someone with reasonable intelligence. Take when Harry first starts to appear. He panics at first and runs around trying to escape. Okay, I can accept that first reaction - if one of my dead relatives suddenly appeared in front of me, I would probably freak out. But after Bob calms down considerably after Harry makes some more appearances, the screenplay contributes more towards the feeling that the screenwriters weren't thinking how real people might act in this unusual situation. Bob never asks Harry obvious questions like where her spirit was for more than a month, how she's feeling, did she see God, and so forth. In fact, despite the fact that the movie showed how despondent he has been for over a month, he never shows he is feeling any joy that he has a second chance with the woman he loves. He doesn't even say, "I love you" until the last few minutes of the movie! But it's not just with the character of Bob that the writing is so unbelievable, it's also with the character of Harry. One of the biggest disappointments in the movie is that she brings absolutely no news (comic or serious) of what the afterlife is like. In fact, when her ghost first appears, she acts like she hadn't died at all, and it takes her a significant amount of time to realize she's dead. (And when she realizes that fact, she accepts the news in a surprisingly casual way.) Later in the movie, in numerous sequences where Bob tries to communicate with other people while Harry's ghost is in the same room, for the most part she doesn't help him out at all. She keeps talking to him, resulting in him responding to what seems like thin air to others, and physically altering his movements. Both actions make Bob appear to be acting and speaking crazy. I think that a ghost of reasonable intelligence that truly loved Bob would be more subtle in her actions, and be careful in her actions so that Bob would come off the best way possible.

It's possible that O'Hara's Wife might have overcome its flaw of the characters acting in an unbelievable manner had the rest of the movie been funny. Sadly, that's not the case. I have to confess that I didn't laugh once while watching the movie. Most of the gags in the movie involve Bob and the ghostly Harry interacting in ways that make it appear to outside observers that Bob is acting and speaking crazy. We have seen this in dozens of other movies and television shows before, and it's not given any fresh spin here. It's the unfunny and illogical script that sinks O'Hara's Wife. The performers are not to blame, however. Despite having unfunny material to work with, they do get a chance to shine and show how talented they are. Asner and Hartley manage to make their characters extremely likable, and when they are not forced to act "funny", they manage to generate genuine chemistry with each other. These are serious scenes, yet these sequences are the best in the entire movie. In fact, in these and other sequences when the movie stops trying to be funny and starts acting seriously, the movie becomes quite compelling. While these dramatic threads are not perfect (for example, we don't learn that Bob is estranged from his son until almost an hour has passed), the drama is done well enough that it will make you wonder why the producers didn't realize that a relatively serious take on the subject of a loved one returning from the dead would have almost certainly worked better. (And be more original, since it seems the majority of takes on the subject are comedic or horrific in nature.) But as it is, O'Hara's Wife is a frustrating viewing experience, because it seems the filmmakers knew better but didn't trust the audience's intelligence.

(Posted June 14, 2014)

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See also: The Angel Levine, The Bang Bang Kid, Maxie

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