Heaven Is For Real is cinematic hell… or, at the very least, a painful, theater-based purgatory where time stretches for an eternity and your creative soul wallows in a cliché-soaked limbo begging for the end credits to arrive and set you free. No matter your religious preferences, you’ll find it tedious and pandering – unless you worship at the altar of boredom.
Heaven claims to be “based on a true story.” Somehow, the events of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah strike me as more credible -- yes, even the Rock Giants – and far more entertaining. Director Randall Wallace derives Heaven Is For Real from Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent’s 2010 New York Times bestseller “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.” As the title suggests, the memoir documents young Colton Burpo’s (Connor Corum) near-death experience, where he claims to have met Jesus – who was riding a rainbow-colored horse – and spent time in Heaven. Colton’s post-surgery story deeply affects his father, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a Christian minister in a tiny Nebraskan community who embraces his son’s account and uses it to connect on a deeper spiritual level with his Church community.
Which is all well and good. The problems of Heaven Is For Real don’t rest with the story – which is engaging, on a surface level. They are with the execution. There’s a moment, early on in the film, where the always-welcome Margo Martindale sits at a piano and leads a chirpy church choir through a hymn. “A little less pious!” she instructs as their shrill voices reach a deafening pitch.
Wallace should have paid attention to her suggestion.
Heaven Is For Real wraps righteous messages about faith, family and the strength of community in a terrible movie burdened with tone-deaf sermons and a complete absence of dramatic suspense. Burpo’s book may be a fascinating read, but there’s no tension in the central story to which Wallace can connect his plot. Colton experienced something miraculous. His father believes him. End of story. It’s beautiful, but not much of a movie.
Neither, though, is Heaven Is For Real, and so, the director and his co-screenwriter Chris Parker (Battle of the Year, Vampire In Brooklyn) have to manufacture conflict through artificial battles. The Burpo’s face a stack of bills that threaten to foreclose their home. The church loves Todd as a preacher, but begin to fear that Colton’s story damages the credibility they have as an institution. (Wouldn’t they embrace ANY congregation member who’d claimed to have a direct interaction with Jesus?) Wallace can’t build to any resolution, so he shoots a series of scenes that have no connection as the movie plays out. Todd breaks his leg in a softball game, which is tragic, but nothing comes of it as the movie progresses, so what was the reason? In another painfully awkward scene, Todd must pass kidney stones while his best pal (Thomas Haden Church) cracks jokes through the bathroom door. Again, I wonder why, as this has no bearing to the overall story trying to be told.
These are mere speed bumps on the dreadful road to Heaven. The movie’s mortal sin is the way it completely wastes its awards-caliber cast -- specifically Kinnear. The Oscar-nominated actor actually brings the personality, kindness, and warm-hearted passion of a Bible Belt pastor to his role. You are reminded of better days when Kinnear was asked to contribute to terrific ensemble pieces like As Good As It Gets or Little Miss Sunshine. And after turning heads opposite Denzel Washington in Flight, the feisty Kelly Reilly accepts a meager, do-nothing part as Sonja Burpo, a soundboard forced to react to the ridiculous scenarios littering her path. At least these are professional actors, who hopefully have legitimate agents who’ll funnel better screenplays in the near future. I can’t say the same about young Corum, who has absolutely no screen presence. Heaven is his first screen credit If there’s a God in Hollywood, it will be his last.
We have been inundated with faith-based features as of late. They have ranged from conventional (Son of God) to imaginative (Noah). But few have been as flat-out flatlined as the disappointing Heaven Is For Real, a hokey slice of soggy spiritual redemption. I doubt I’ll see a cheesier, more desperate movie all year.