Heaven is for Real (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG thematic material including some medical situations
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas
Director: Randall Wallace
Screenplay: Chris Parker, Randall Wallace (based on the book, "Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back", by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent)
Review published April 18, 2014
Viewers who come into the film already inclined to believe that there is an afterlife, especially a Christian afterlife, will likely connect much more than skeptics and nonbelievers in Heaven is for Real, which tells of one boy's account of his trip to Heaven and recurring visions he experiences after a fateful trip to the hospital. While the film, based on Todd Burpo's best-selling book of the same name (first published in 2010), can be accused of "preaching to the choir" in some respects, the story isn't actually trying to convince its audience that Heaven exists so much as explore how a family's faith is put to the test when one of its members, in this case a four-year-old boy, asserts as fact that he went to Heaven, sat on Jesus's lap, and met some of his family's deceased.
Randall Wallace (Secretariat, The Man in the Iron Mask) directs and co-scripts this Nebraska-set drama (Manitoba, Canada substitutes), quickly establishing the small town vibe and the goings-on of its inhabitants. Greg Kinnear (Anchorman 2, The English Teacher) does a commendable job playing Crossroads Wesleyan pastor Todd Burpo, whose own money issues and costly personal ailments put him out of commission enough that when his younger son Colton (Corum) gets gravely ill from a ruptured appendix, even he begins to angrily question how God could do this to him. Upon recovering from surgery, Colton begins to relate to his parents that he witnessed the procedure as it was happening as if from above, and could also see his parents in other rooms, before eventually finding his way to Heaven, where he sees angels and meets Jesus, who takes him on a guided tour to meet the family he never knew that are waiting for him.
While one might think that proof of Heaven might be wonderful news to a family of firm believers (a preacher's family, no less), the publicity generated by Colton's story in the press only presents more problems for the family at work, at school, and among the members of the church. Part of the reason that faith is being tested is that Todd himself isn't sure whether to believe Colton's account or not; he believes he saw something, but going to Heaven? That's a stretch that's too far for even a pastor like Todd to fully embrace. And Todd's wavering affects his sermons, as his flock begin to have their own faith in him as a preacher waver seeing him confront a crisis of faith that spills over into his ability to lead them.
Heaven is for Real never questions whether Colton is lying, giving every indication that either Colton really did visit Heaven, or he merely is suffering a series of hallucinations while sedated during surgery, as well as flashbacks after the fact. Todd, the pastor, is inclined to dismiss Colton's story, and yet the boy claims to have seen things he could not see, including Todd's long-lost grandfather whom Colton never met, as well as the sister who had never been born, a miscarriage that his parents never revealed to him.
Wallace's film tends to be a bit leaden and false when he has less sure actors on the screen. The parts that work best are when he has Kinnear or Margo Martindale (August; Osage County, Win Win), who plays the (fictitious, for the movie) mother and church elder still in grief over the loss of her fallen Marine son, front and center, who sell their difficult roles with great personality and panache. Although he's usually typecast as a conniver in comedies, Kinnear in particular is effective at portraying a man under pressure trying to deal with all of the heavy burdens placed upon him, and then having to juggle the shenanigans of others when they begin to question (and mock) his family because his son had an experience they find a fantasy at best.
Some of the dramatic elements aren't handled as well as others, particularly involving the children, who mostly come off as robotic in their behavior. I also feel like it may have reduced the tension to show us the literal details of Colton's experience in Heaven, which tends to lessen the mystery surrounding his experience, and also makes it more difficult to understand Todd's wavering on the issue when we're privy to much more of the transcendent experience than he is ever shown. The film's strengths lie in its ambiguousness about the subject, and how even the most faithful have to really assess if they really are going to walk the walk when someone professes a knowledge of truth and experience when everyone else merely has faith to go on.
One nitpick I also have is the persistent references to Spider-Man, which is Colton's favorite comic book character (in the book, he is one of several action figures the boy carried around with him, including Batman and Buzz Lightyear), that occur through the majority of scenes in the movie. Not that I'm averse to Spider-Man at all, as he was my favorite character growing up as well, but the fact that Heaven is for Real is made by Sony Pictures, and Sony owns the rights to the Spider-Man movies, makes it feel like a commercial for one of their most popular properties. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is set to be released just three weeks after the release of Heaven is for Real in the theaters, and nearly every movie theater in the country will have huge ASM2 displays and posters as audiences walk out of the theater doors. I could write this off as reading too much into the intent of the filmmakers if not for the fact that this movie also shoehorns in a lot of Coca-Cola products as well (Sony and Coca-Cola have been longtime brand partners since Sony bought out Coke's Columbia Pictures).
Viewers may be most pleased that the film, which deals with a great many serious issues including death and grief, has a good deal of comic relief. While the movie as a whole is a drama, there are elements of sitcom levity (sometimes even a bit corny), as well as kids' movie lightheartedness, that keep the film as relatively fun and not so "holier than thou" in its approach to the audience. While it may be a bit on the bland side at times, Heaven is for Real is definitely not obnoxious or taxing, and perhaps it will also be viewed as inspiring, even for those who don't believe that, well, heaven is real. Its greatest asset as a faith-based film is that it doesn't talk down to you so much as ask you to get on board the ride, if not the final destination.
©2014 Vince Leo