Those who already possess an unwavering belief in Jesus, the afterlife, and all of the other tenants of Christianity will take comfort in Randall Wallace's Heaven Is for Real. It was designed to preach to the choir, and while the main character's crisis of faith could have been interesting enough for skeptics to take something away from the story, a single decision by the filmmakers turns this picture into a chore for any viewer who doesnít already believe the title.
The movie stars Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo, a popular minister who loves his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), his young daughter Cassie (Lane Styles), and his even younger son Colton (Connor Corum). Todd suffers a horrific leg injury during a softball game one day, and that's quickly followed by a series of painful kidney stones. These medical issues lead to money problems for the Burpo clan, but they are still able to take a weekend vacation. However, upon returning home, the kids become very ill and Colton requires an emergency appendectomy. While under the knife, the child sees heaven, talks to Jesus, and meets a number of deceased individuals connected to his family.
When Colton awakens and shares this tale, which includes information about his dead grandfather that he couldnít have known beforehand, Todd begins to question everything he believes and wonders if he ever really accepted a literal interpretation of Christianity. Meanwhile, as his child becomes a celebrity, church leaders grow concerned about his leadership and the possibility that itís created bad publicity for the ministry.
Kinnear is fine: He's credible as a loving father, but seeing him in this part is odd because he has built a reputation as smarmy and insincere -- imagine watching David Letterman play something entirely earnest in 1992 and you might have some idea of how hard it is to fully accept him in this role. He gets support from Thomas Haden Church, who makes an impression as Todd's best friend, and the always reliable Margo Martindale, who portrays the still grieving mother of a marine who died overseas. She plays a handful of scenes that beg for overacting with commendable restraint.
Wallace co-wrote the script, based on Todd Burpo's memoir, with Christopher Parker, and they make two obvious mistakes that keep the film from engaging nonbelievers. First, the opening act is paced far too slowly. A good 30 minutes pass before we get to the key sequence in which Colton gets sick and has his visions. We know everything we need to about the family after ten minutes, and this extra time only makes the audience impatient as Todd deals with one setback after another.
Their biggest error, however, is their choice to show us Colton's visions when he first has them. Regardless of the fact that almost any conception of the afterlife is going to undermine many viewers' suspension of disbelief, this is the wrong decision because the drama in the movie comes from Todd trying to decide if he believes his son, and if so, how that realization changes him. We should be put in his position, but by telling us that Colton's experiences were "real," we always know more than Todd. The audience spends the whole picture waiting for him to come around to a truth that is established early on, and there's no tension in that. The filmmakers assume if you're watching this movie, then you already share the characters' beliefs, and that makes Heaven Is for Real a homily rather than a searching meditation on serious themes.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: PG
- Review: Those who already possess an unwavering belief in Jesus, the afterlife, and all of the other tenants of Christianity will take comfort in Randall Wallace's Heaven Is for Real. It was designed to preach to the choir, and while the main character's crisis of… (more)