Heaven Is For Real (2014) – Review

Directed by Randall Wallace
Written by Randall Wallace, Chris Parker from Todd Burpo & Lynn Vincent
Starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church 

 I read a funny poster the other day about this film. It didn’t seem funny at the time, of course, as I hadn’t seen the film by then, but I get the irony after the fact, even if I’m not sure I agree with it. It stated “Heaven Is For Real – How Todd Burpo and Hollywood Fleeced Chrisitianity.” It made me smile simply because whilst it is fairly honest from one rather blinkered perspective, it may not be an opinion that everyone shares. And on reflection, it might just be a lesson in tolerance that the original poster of the image needs. Or at the very least, a mind as open as possible, in order to objectively weigh up this feature, without coming across like a bitter (albeit amusing) churchgoer with an axe to grind.
Let me state again, for the record, that I am of no fixed religion and count myself as a practicing agnostic with simple questions that still remain unanswered. The reason I mention this is to underline my motivation for giving my opinion, in the knowledge that you may take what I write as opinion on the film and not its alleged message, should you believe it indeed has something to say. Religion is a feisty tightrope. People have been blown up for less, so making a movie about it is always a tad dodgy. What’s more, aligning yourself as talent to such a thing can sometimes be fraught with professional obstacles.Saying ‘bugger it and sod the consequences’ here is Greg Kinnear, playing the role of Todd Burpo in the ‘based on actual events’ story of what happened when his son went to heaven, met Jesus, had a smashing time and then came back and told his (I want to believe) Dad about it. Burpo, the local Pastor, is a good man. He is a loving father and caring husband, not to mention a volunteer firefighter and generally all-round good christian chap, who speaks from his heart everyday including Sundays, when his audience is getting increasingly large. People like Todd. This is fair enough, there is lots to like about him.

When his son is rushed (after four days with a high fever) into the local hospital with an acute appendicitis that needs immediate treatment, both he and his wife, played here dutifully by Kelly Reilly (she’s been getting around lately) are suitably beside themselves, as any caring parent would expect to be. Their vigil at the hospital sees them together and apart at times, whilst their son is under the knife. She rings around the community asking people to say prayers for their little boy, whilst Todd shouts his grievances at God in the hospital chapel. How dare He take his boy from him when he is doing His work? I mean, it’s like being the best employee at work for a decade and finding out that your boss has been having sex with your teenage daughter. It’s just not on, frankly. So who can blame him for having a bit of a vent, in private, away from those that could be swayed by his temporary decline into fury.

What follows after his son’s recovery is a tale that has done the rounds for a while now. Todd gets into conversation with his son, Colton, who quite matter-of-factly, describes the time he floated above his body and saw the doctors operating on him. He goes on further to say how he saw Dad shouting at God and how he heard Mommy asking for prayers from their friends to make sure he was okay. All of this happened when he was inconscious on the slab, so how did he know? At the same time, Colton tells Todd that he went to heaven, spoke to Jesus and generally had a lovely time there, before being sent back.

Checking the events, Todd realises that Colton’s heart had never stopped beating during the operation nor had he ever been declared clinically dead. As you can imagine, this indeed put the cat amongst the pigeons. And now poor Todd doesn’t have a clue what to think. The Pastor with a son that went to heaven for a visit? Should he tell anyone what he has learnt? Even he think it seems a bit convenient, given his calling.

The meat of the story revolves around the emotional struggle Tood experiences with this potentially community-shattering news and how his conscience is supposed to handle all of this information that is pouring out of his son. Eventually, he has to make a decision that may make or break his immediate future.

Films of this ‘type’ (see god-bothering, happy-clappy, feelgood) tend to do very well amongst the demographic for which they are intended. Any further than this admittedly specific group of viewers will either have audiences rolling their eyes knowingly or possibly even plotting their first and last suicide bombing. If you get the feeling that the film was directed by Jesus himself, you start then to wonder if editorial perspective counts for much and subsequently, should you really take any of this at face value, given that sometimes this feels more like an advertisement for Christianity, rather than a story delivered for all of the right reasons. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that the movie fleeces the religious beliefs of its audience, but attaching big names will inevitably draw bigger crowds than normal, making the more cynical amongst us that much more likely crow beligerently about it.

The story is simple in the extreme and the saccharin sweet characters are all too twee to be believed. Having not read the book from which the film is based, it’s hard for me to say how authentic it is to the original text, but nevertheless, this feels like I’m having my faith (should I have had any) gently and lovingly fondled, but in a good way. Nice acting and pretty pictures make this bearable, but only just.

 

 

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