By Ty Burr
Updated August 13, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

You’d think Robert Downey Jr. would have wanted to steer clear of life-after-death comedies after the embarrassment of 1989’s Chances Are. But, no, he has gone ahead and plunged into Heart and Souls, another ”feel-good” Heaven Can Wait clone. The difference is that this time he gets it right.

Granted, the movie rolls on an absurdly predictable track. In 1959 San Francisco, a bus crash takes the life of four passengers: waitress Julia (Kyra Sedgwick), single mom Penny (Alfre Woodard), milquetoast librarian Harrison (Charles Grodin), and genial thief Milo (Tom Sizemore). Because their lives were snuffed out early, the four are fated (by the celestial bureaucracy that always decides such things in movies) to hang around Earth as guardian angels to a boy born at the exact second they died. The kid grows up to be uptight yuppie Thomas Reilly (Downey), and the four souls then learn that he must carry out the various pieces of business that their deaths left unfinished.

All this exposition is crammed into the first half hour, but Heart and Souls is so pleasantly corny that you barely notice the contortions. The one to thank is Ron Underwood, who after City Slickers and the goofy giant-worm thriller Tremors is looking like one of the most versatile commercial directors since the heyday of the studio system. His job here is to move audiences briskly past the contrived setup and into the home stretch: the scenes in which, one by one, Thomas’ four angels take over his body so that they can settle up their lives.

Right: It’s All of Me times four, plus Ghost. Of course, Robert Downey Jr. is no Steve Martin (sublime genius) or Patrick Swayze (unsublime hunk). But he is a good Robert Downey Jr. — amusing, lightweight, poised affably on the line between smart and smartass. And the gift for physical comedy that served him well in Chaplin gets a workout whenever Thomas is momentarily possessed by one of his angels. In one scene, the feminine Julia takes over at a stuffy boardroom meeting: Downey sashays, pouts, and curls his limbs around his startled boss with unabashed sexual glee. And in Heart and Souls‘ most crowd-pleasing moment, Thomas fulfills shy Harrison’s dream of singing in public by clambering on stage at a B.B. King concert and — with just the right amount of deadpan — leading the audience in ”The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Downey’s deftness is so miraculous, in fact, that it’s a shame Heart and Souls never really lets him cut loose. Those ”possession” scenes are too few and too brief — the filmmakers have boxed themselves in with so many characters that the star gets trampled in the plotting. And he’s not the only one: Elisabeth Shue has nothing to do but glower as Thomas’ starchy girlfriend, while 1992 Oscar nominee David Paymer (Mr. Saturday Night) is wasted as the fatally distracted bus driver who becomes an otherworldly messenger (his punishment, apparently, is delivering all those lumpy monologues that explain how heaven works).

Yet Heart and Souls has a sappy glow rooted in an irresistible fairy-tale concept: What if our imaginary friends from childhood were real? It’s an idea potent enough to sail over the most ridiculous story twists. For instance, Penny wants to find the son who was given up for adoption after her death; when Thomas finally locates him, it’s through a coincidence that defines the word far-fetched. But it doesn’t matter; you’ve been with these characters for so long, and Alfre Woodard portrays joy so palpably, that you’re happy just to see the guy. You may hate yourself for liking Heart and Souls, but at least you can take comfort in the fact that you’ve been had by professionals. B