Heaven is for Real (PG)
A little boy facing life-threatening illness claims to have visited heaven, causing his preacher father to have a crisis of faith in Heaven is for Real, which is based on the hugely popular book of the same name.
Like some midwestern Job, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is having a hard time of it. He works, like, half a dozen jobs (the principal one being as pastor at a church in small-town Nebraska) but seems to have no regular income, no savings and no healthcare to deal with the three major health problems that plague his family in the movie’s first half. But nevertheless people in town — as led by church council members Nancy (Margo Martindale) and Jay (Thomas Haden Church) — really like Todd and his family. Don’t like him enough to pay their bills for his repair work, but enough to stop and say a few prayers for his 4-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) when he suffers from a ruptured appendix. Colton doesn’t die while doctors are performing surgery but he does have a near death experience. He sees heaven, meets Jesus (who, he later tells his father, has a horse and bluey-green eyes) and meets long-dead relatives. Angels even sing for him, though not, as he requests, “We Will Rock You.”
His health improves, but Colton still carries the memories of what he saw and tells his father all about it. Todd doesn’t know what to do with the information, isn’t sure how to process it. What does it mean, he wonders, if his son really has met Jesus? What does it mean — for Todd’s life, for his ministry, for his own religious beliefs, if heaven is for real?
Forget religious beliefs, I have a serious lack of faith in this movie’s understanding of its own characters, story or what the heck it’s trying to say. Even the tone is confusing, as the movie weaves from super-PG goofiness (choir ladies sing off-key and the family dog starts to howl) to dark-night-of-the-soul crisis-of-faith stuff. I will believe in a Jesus riding a rainbow horse (which, sadly, we don’t get to see), no questions asked, before I’ll believe that a reporter, based on some “off the record” comments by hospital workers (what?), would show up at a church to ask a minister for quotes, via a question shouted press-conference-style, about his son’s illness during a middle of a service. I realize that that detail is a small thing, something that would probably only bother reporters, the way that, for all I know, some garage door repairman is out there foaming at the mouth over the scene of Kinnear’s character fixing a warehouse door. But the reporter who stands up, notebook in hand, to ask some stupid question about what Todd thinks about Colton’s visit to heaven is an excellent example of the movie’s willful lack of interest in showing us real people. You don’t have to believe in the event to be able to understand the emotions, but the movie, for the most part, is more interested in the dramatic revelations (Colton met a great-grandfather who died long before he was born! How could he ever have known about him!?) than in what’s actually happening in Colton’s head or why his story has so shaken his father.
Near the end of the movie, Margo Martindale absolutely kills it in a scene where she discusses, more or less, the nature of faith and grief and how it’s shaped her view of religion and Todd as a minister. That scene — where an emotionally raw Nancy has an honest conversation with an emotionally and professionally wrecked Todd — is fascinating. Movies don’t tend to talk about faith in this way — religion is a backdrop, a source of villainy or an accepted fact but it’s seldom a thing people turn over and consider. Nancy and Todd are two normal people, struggling with faith. It’s not exactly robots fighting dinosaurs in terms of a subject for cinema, but the two actors in the scene pull it off and make it completely engrossing. Had the movie done this in more than one scene, Heaven is for Real could have been something — a character study, a look at the way faith works in different people, a straightforward tale of how a family deals with a child who has had an experience that can’t really be explained.
Instead, instead of being something, anything, the movie is confoundingly nothing. I can’t see how it is particularly of use or interest to believers — it doesn’t even really have much to say about heaven, either as a place or as a part of a religion’s belief system. It weirdly doesn’t even have a really solid position on what happened to Colton or what that means to Todd. And, actually, it doesn’t really have a solid position on why not having a solid position about heaven matters — I could respect a movie that says “Colton went to heaven and it is run by a green-eyed Jesus, the end” or a movie that says “Colton may or may not have ‘been to heaven’ but it’s this other thing (the message he spread, his father’s renewed faith, whatever) that matters.” But this movie does neither of those things. Or maybe it tries to do both of those things. I can’t tell. It’s a mess of histrionics, gauzy close-ups of Colton and Greg Kinnear playing Todd Burpo like a man nearing a mental breakdown. And even Todd’s shaken faith and attempts to understand Colton are soft-played. It’s as if the movie wanted so badly to placate every potential viewpoint — from skeptics to people who can cite scripture minutiae like Lord of the Rings fans can talk about elvish swords — that it just threw up its hands, slapped some CGI angels in a few scenes and hoped everything would just work out.
And that, I’m thinking, is not what Christians are looking for when they want faith-based story-telling. C-
Rated PG for thematic material including some medical situations. Directed by Randall Wallace with a screenplay by Chris Parker and Randall Wallace (from the book of the same name by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent), Heaven is for Real is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed by Sony.
As seen in the April 24, 2014 issue of the Hippo.