Even when a movie looks unpromising, you can often find some ray of hope that gets you to the theater or eventually the DVD. In the case of Over Her Dead Body, I latched optimistically onto Paul Rudd. (Not literally. Unfortunately.) Rudd has that rare and magnetic combination of good looks and great comic delivery that worked so well for his supporting characters in Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman and other movies that didn't involve Judd Apatow ... not to mention a recurring role in the last season of Friends as Phoebe's boyfriend. (Ohh, to have to choose between Hank Azaria and Paul Rudd. Geek girls everywhere are sighing with me.)

You can imagine my disillusion when I realized that because Rudd is playing a guy who is deeply mourning his dead lover, someone decided he should look wan and tired. This devotion to reflecting his character's stress and debilitation is truly unnecessary -- it's a movie that includes ghosts and angels, so why would you invoke realism and give a romantic lead these dark circles under his eyes? Very sad, indeed.

Rudd plays the mournful Henry, a veterinarian whose self-centered, bitchy fiancee Kate (Eva Longoria Parker) is killed in a freak accident on their wedding day. Kate finds herself in Limbo and after insulting the angel who is supposed to help her, ends up as a ghost back on Earth with no idea what to do. She decides it must be her job to protect Henry from encroaching females. Meanwhile, a year after Kate's death, Henry's kooky sister Chloe (Lindsay Sloane) drags him to a psychic who hopefully can assure him that Kate is resting in peace, so he can move on with his life. The part-time psychic, Ashley (Lake Bell), is a flaky caterer who is willing to help Henry after Chloe insists ... and also because she's attracted to Henry. Kate doesn't like any of this hanky-panky, and Hilarity Ensues.

The story is terribly contrived -- things happen not because they make sense within the world of the film, but because they are good for a laugh. Henry's sister Chloe barely seems to belong in this film, and she's more of an instrument of narrative force than an actual character. Although Over Her Dead Body is billed as a romantic comedy, there's far more "comedy" than "romantic" in this movie, which at least makes the ending potentially unpredictable. When the focus is on laughs and supernatural elements are involved, you don't necessarily have to move toward an inevitable pairing up of the romantic leads -- for example, at least one of them could die and join the ghostly element of the film.

The emphasis on comedy over romance also means that Rudd has a lot of one-liners, which he delivers so well that even when they shouldn't seem very funny, you have a tendency to laugh anyway. (And why is a guy who is supposed to be in mourning the character who gets all the funniest lines, anyway?) Other characters deliver a lot of physical humor, especially Ashley the psychic caterer and her "gay best friend" Dan (Jason Biggs), who both have a marked tendency toward klutziness.

Over Her Dead Body feels like a weak rehash of The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and reminds me of the days when Janaene Garafalo was being cast as a romantic lead. Garafalo played a vet in that one, but she was at least more believable as an animal lover than Rudd's character, who hardly seems to care about his clients or pets. The Truth About Cats and Dogs is the strongest by far of Garafalo's romantic-lead films, perhaps because the characters were strong and compelling. Otherwise, she met with about the same success as Rudd in that type of role: dialogue delivered wittily, but the movies were forgettable. I'd prefer to see Rudd in undiluted comedy.

The rest of the cast is hampered by weak, stereotypical characterization, although Lake Bell shows a lot of potential -- I'd enjoy seeing her again in a role that doesn't feel like it was written for Sandra Bullock. Eva Longoria Parker seems to be channeling Joan Collins but stops short of full-blooded evil bitchiness, and her one-note character becomes irritating after awhile. Jason Biggs plays against type as Ashley's assistant/gay best friend Dan, but the twist in his character is more creepy than funny. Character actor Stephen Root has a small role as an ice sculptor that's too minor to generate more than a smile from those who are fond of the actor in movies like Office Space.

The gags in Over Her Dead Body are fitfully amusing, enough to keep you going through the fairly short running time (95 minutes) although the plot itself is stretched very thin. It's the kind of slight comedy that you appreciate when you stumble across it accidentally, one lonely night on cable, but disappoints when you fork out money in a theater to enjoy the delights of the lead actors.