The movie Chances Are (1989) is a romantic comedy about reincarnation. A woman’s (Cybill Shepherd) husband is killed in the 1960s, and in a brief heaven scene — complete with fluffy clouds and angels with clear tablets shaped like the Ten Commandments — we see the husband head off to get reincarnated. The only problem is, he doesn’t get the all-important forgetfulness inoculation. Through the rest of the film, Corinne (Shepherd) believes her husband’s soul has come back in the body of her daughter’s boyfriend, Alex (Robert Downey, Jr.).
As you can imagine, the creep factor is quite high in this film. If Alex is Corinne’s reincarnated husband, then he’s dating his own daughter. If he’s not her reincarnated husband, then Corinne is stealing her daughter’s boyfriend. Oh, and she’s been cooking her dead husband dinners for over 20 years. And her husband’s best friend (Ryan O’Neal) has been in love with Corinne all this time, and has basically helped raised Corinne’s daughter. Like I said, the creep factor is high.
It’s a strange premise for a romantic comedy, and it requires a good half-hour or so of set-up and character introductions. The first time we meet Alex is about fifteen minutes into the film, as he coasts along on a book cart in the Yale University Library. This introduces his personality as boyish and fun-loving — traits at odds in a serious setting like the library.
He then coasts into a scene in which Miranda (Masterson) — whom is later revealed to be Corinne’s daughter — is getting schooled by a librarian called Mrs. Handy (Kathleen Freeman). The librarian is middle-aged, dressed in conservative layers and has short hair — but no glasses!
Let’s listen in as Alex does:
Mrs. Handy: So you just assumed that nobody at Yale University or Yale Law School had any interest in checking out these 6 books in the last 3 months? You are going to make some lawyer. You owe $87.25.
Miranda: Can I put that on a credit card?
Mrs. Handy: This isn’t a boutique. Cash only, or we’re have to hold up your grades.
Alex then swoops into action, coming to the rescue of the damsel in distress.
Alex: Mrs. Handy. The rare books room. The Shakespeare folios.
Mrs. Handy: Fooling with the folios?
Alex: Yes and they’re fiddling, too. Go!
Miranda’s reaction as the librarian rushes off?
God. Is she always that awful?
Interesting to realize that the librarian replaces Miranda as the “damsel in distress.” And she is so worried about people “fiddling” with the folios — and her character name is Mrs. Handy. Such clever screenwriters. 😉
This “meet cute” scene continues as Alex jokes that the librarian is his mother — we are rewarded with a priceless reaction on Miranda’s face! — and then he magically wipes away the fines in the computer:
Uh-oh. This is bad. Worse than I thought. According to this, these books were never legally checked out. So that means I can’t charge you for them. You beat the system.
Alex then introduces himself, and we learn that he’s about to graduate. Miranda rushes off — she’s got a ride waiting, because she just had NO IDEA that it would take very long to return books that were 3 months overdue — but doublechecks that the “awful” librarian isn’t his mother.
This is definitely a scene played for laughs, and the university librarian fulfills the Comic Librarian character type. We laugh at her distress over the folios, which OF COURSE is what she gets for being mean to the pretty young girl with a credit card in one hand and overdue library books in the other. Oh, wait … am I showing my real librarian bias at this reel librarian portrayal? 😉
Another side note: After rewinding this scene to make sure I had gotten the quotes right, my husband piped up with the information that the library fines turned out to be 15 cents a day. Doesn’t it sound like one of those word problems you had in school:
Your library fines total $87.25. You checked out 6 books, which are 3 months overdue. What then is the daily rate for library fines?
This “meet cute” introductory scene also recalls the “meet cute” scene in the 1970 film Love Story, co-starring Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, one of the four leads in Chances Are. In Love Story, Ali MacGraw plays a library assistant and is the one who schools Ryan O’Neal.
And in yet another coincidence, Robert Downey, Jr. starred in another reincarnation comedy a few years later, in the 1993 comedy Heart and Souls. That film also included a reel librarian character, a supporting character named Harrison Winslow, played by Charles Grodin. Harrison in Heart and Souls turns out to be a Liberated Librarian — as does Alex in Chances Are. The librarian, Mrs. Handy, definitely fulfills the Comic Relief role in this Class II film.
For more examples of Comic Relief portrayals, click here.
- Chances Are. Dir. Emile Ardolino. Perf. Cybill Shepherd, Robert Downey, Jr., Ryan O’Neal, Mary Stuart Masterson, Christopher McDonald. TriStar, 1989.
- Heart and Souls. Dir. Ron Underwood. Perf. Robert Downey, Jr., Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Sizemore, Elisabeth Shue. Universal, 1993.
- Love Story. Dir. Arthur Hiller. Perf. Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland. Paramount, 1970.