'Heaven Is for Real'
The market for church basement weepies has existed for years, so it’s not too surprising that a movie like ‘Heaven Is For Real’ was made. However, it is surprising that a film this unabashedly evangelical got a wide theatrical release from a major studio. Something about it feels sleazily exploitative, and not in a fun Roger Corman way, but in a begging televangelist way.
The film comes from the bestselling book of the same name and offers earnestness and cheese in suffocating quantities. Greg Kinnear stars as Todd Burpo, a pastor, fireman, garage door salesman, family man, and all-around good guy who in a short span of time experiences an string of bad luck that peaks when his son (Connor Corum) requires potentially deadly emergency surgery. Burpo’s faith is tested, dramatically so, by the ordeals. Then his faith is tested again and pushed to the evangelical limit when his son claims to have gone to heaven during his surgery. At first, as the child spins yarns about Jesus riding on a horse “with all the colors of the rainbow,” Burpo thinks it’s merely the boy’s overactive imagination. Then the boy starts mentioning details about what his mother and father were doing during the surgery that he couldn’t possibly have seen, and describes seeing a dead grandfather and sister that he couldn’t have known about. Suddenly, Burpo starts to believe, much to the chagrin of his friends and fellow churchgoers Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church and others.
Essentially, this is the tale of a man who goes from being a casual Christian to a super Christian. As such, it’s a story for a select audience. It’s a movie for believers that slathers guilt all over them for not believing hard enough. There’s a place for those stories and movies, but whether a mainstream movie theater is that place is a reasonable question.
Regardless, this isn’t a particularly great example of that form. The actors try their hardest to sell the material they’re given, but ultimately this is a big ol’ cheesefest that can’t be saved by talent or sincerity. The script is didactic and written with all the subtlety of a greeting card. The direction is turgid and shot through the overly-soft lighting of a deodorant commercial.
Nothing about ‘Heaven Is for Real’ feels remotely like the real world, which is particularly frustrating in a movie that boasts being “based on a true story” off the top. It’s really just a commercial for the church. Then, to make the manipulative mess even harder to stomach, the movie filled with images of the boy holding a Spider-Man action figure and gazing at a number of Spider-Man posters on his wall. This wasn’t done because it’s relevant to the actual events or even the fictionalized screenplay, but because Sony wants to remind you that the studio also has another Spider-Man movie coming out this summer. That the filmmakers would so blatantly turn a supposedly spiritual story into cynical cross-promotion reveals of their true motivations in an ugly way. They aren’t trying to move viewers. They’re trying to sell a popular story about heaven to Christians for profit, just like their studio bosses are trying to sell Spider-Man to kiddies.
A far more interesting, yet still overtly Christian version of this movie could have been made – one in which the boy’s vision was never shown and its “reality” never confirmed. The filmmakers still could have provided a spiritually uplifting journey for the characters and audience, just one without so much cynical calculation. Instead, director Randall Wallace and compnay offer up horrendous CGI representations of Jesus, angels and heaven that are presented as naked fact even though no one would buy the cornball effects and grating audience manipulation if the imagery wasn’t tied to the Bible. ‘Heaven Is for Real’ should have been made as a Kirk Cameron production so that only harcore believers, fans and bored children disappointed after opening their DVD-shaped birthday presents would ever know it exists.