I saw “Heaven Is for Real,” and I didn’t like it.
No, that’s not entirely true. I liked the fact that an overtly religious film was getting a wide release. I liked Greg Kinnear — it’s almost impossible not to like Greg Kinnear — and I thought all the actors were top-notch, especially the children. It’s very difficult to coax a credible performance out of a young child when dealing with such sentimental subject matter, but the director made it work. Watching young actor Connor Corum belt out “We Will Rock You” while sitting in his car seat is almost worth the price of admission.
The key word there is “almost.”
I found the rest of the movie to be extremely frustrating, so a few cute moments weren’t enough to save it. I mean, come on — whose bright idea was it to make a church congregation recoil at the idea of heaven being real?
Todd Burpo, Greg Kinnear’s character, has a 4-year-old son named Colton who goes to heaven during an emergency appendectomy. The boy meets Jesus and angels, as well as his great-grandfather and a sister who died in her mother’s womb. Colton learns things he couldn’t possibly have known through natural means. Yet when he confides in his parents about all this, his dad is skeptical and his mom doesn’t really believe him at all.
But that’s not the worst of it.
When Todd starts talking about this from the pulpit at church, many parishioners are aghast. Todd is called before the church board, who tells him they’re looking for a replacement minister because they’ve lost confidence in him for all this talk about heaven. And when he’s called upon to a deliver a sort of “do or die” sermon to save his job and confront all the controversy head on, he delivers a homily so vapid that it couldn’t have inspired a man with a cold to blow his nose. Todd says a few words about everybody having a different idea of what heaven is, and isn’t that great, and nobody really knows, but let’s all get along here on earth in the meantime.
My wife has read the book, which the real-life Burpo wrote to record the actual events. The real Burpo’s family and congregation embraced Colton’s story instantly, which is exactly what one would expect from people of faith. Remember, these are folks who go to church every Sunday to hear about heaven, who live their lives in preparation for heaven and whose every waking moment is informed by the idea that heaven is, indeed, for real. The idea that there would be any negative blowback from the testimony of a child to a congregation of believers makes no sense whatsoever.
I say all this while at the same time recognizing the quandary the film producers were facing here. A compelling narrative requires some obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, and the facts here didn’t conveniently lend themselves to dramatic fireworks. So I understand the temptation to manufacture some kind of conflict out of thin air. But the way they decided to do that diluted the faith of the characters and compromised their integrity.
What kind of preacher is uncomfortable talking about heaven? What kind of people show up to listen to such a man? If all this heaven talk makes you uncomfortable, chances are you’re not sitting on an uncomfortable pew on a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon.
The success of “Heaven Is for Real,” despite its glaring flaws, is one more sign that there is a sizeable audience for faith-based entertainment. This also demonstrates that Hollywood’s reticence to meet the demands of the religious market stems from its inability to understand it.
I applaud the attempt here, and I hope the producers try again, as their intentions were good. But good intentions aren’t enough to compensate for a bad movie.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.