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'90 Minutes in Heaven' goes short on religion but also story

The evangelical mega-bestsller is now the movie, but "90 Minutes in Heaven," with Hayden Christen and Kate Bosworth, is less propaganda than a war between a gentle, intimate drama and far-out kitsch.

‘90 Minutes in Heaven’
Director:
Michael Polish
Stars: Hayden Christensen, Kate Bosworth
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Like last year’s “Heaven is for Real,” the superficially similar “90 Minutes in Heaven” is both not quite what you think and what you think. Both are products made outside the usual small-time, podunk faith-based production grounds. Both are based on a mega-bestseller boasting dodgy supernatural bona fides. Both make beyond tall claims that would never sway even a weak agnostic, or perhaps even a casual Christian. And both could have easily been TBN-style monstrosities that did nothing but preach to the converted, but instead do slightly more. Still, the bar is set very low.

RELATED: Kate Bosworth and Hayden Christensen didn't treat "90 Minutes in Heaven" like a religious movie

Not that "Real" and "90 Minutes" don’t preach to the converted, but there is some effort to get at something other than an unquestioning reassurance of blind faith — to connect its tale to deeper, one could say secular concerns. At heart “Heaven is for Real” is about a father wrestling with believing his son’s potential lies; at heart “90 Minutes in Heaven” is about a woman struggling with her husband’s painful, at times physically and emotionally gruesome recovery. Both are also about someone claiming they’ve seen heaven, but forget that for now. And yet neither can overcome their chintzy, ultimately dramatically inert origins, and “90 Minutes” in particular flatlines in its last half hour and barely putters along in the hour and half before that.

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“90 Minutes” begins like any ostentatiously fundie film, which is to say terribly. Thirty-something Baptist minister Don Piper (Hayden Christensen) drives around to a Christian radio station while glancing at Bible notes, blissfully unaware he’s about to be plowed into by a semi-trailer truck. (Much of "90 Minutes" rises well above basic competence, but the freeze frame of Don mid-impact is worse than anything in the Kirk Cameron canon.) In the time Don is presumed dead before unexpectedly creeping back to consciousness, he sees a laughably cheap CGI vision of deceased, smiling relatives standing in front of a butt ugly yellow light.

Don doesn't even mention this vision until less than a half hour remains. Even then it doesn’t dig into whether Don’s sincerely held beliefs are truth or BS (or, more charitably, a hallucination he mistook for reality). That's a good thing and not: good, because it doesn't have much of a case; not, because there's not much there there. For the bulk of its timeit’s an earnest but detached, sporadically actually moving and often narcotically slow study of one man’s baby step-y recovery and what the ordeal does to his marriage.

There’s even less meat on these bones than there were on the paltry “Heaven is for Real,” but “90 Minutes” does have much, much weirder pedigree. Whereas that film was made by a noted Hollywood conservative, Randall Wallace, this more low budget affair comes from someone whose work has sometimes been compared to David Lynch, although not always favorably. The director is Michael Polish, who once created strained oddities like “Twin Falls Idaho” and “Northfork” with his twin brother Mark. (As performers they were well-used in Neil Jordan’s unjustly forgotten “The Good Thief.”) Polish partly plays ball: Along with the blown-out peeks at heaven, there are shamelessly moving scenes coated in sickly Christian pop ballads, goofy pet humor, fawning shots of priests, numerous shills for McDonald’s, lots of mustaches and, briefly, actor-cum-former Republican presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson.

But there are also weird Polish-isms. Don’s internment in his hospital bed is treated like Cronenbergian body horror — one man imprisoned inside a broken shell, reduced at times to no more than indistinguishable moans. (Still, he got off a lot better than Christensen’s smoldering pre-Vader Anakin Skywalker.) It's a Cronenberg movie in super-duper-mega-slow-motion, hitting the same creepy note for an hour, but amongst these grim pastures it's something.There’s Dwight Yoakum as a goofy shyster lawyer buried underneath a cowboy hat, a bushy ’stache and a barndoor broad good ol’ boy accent — the kind of grotesque that could have plucked straight out of "Northfork," though that's not necessarily a good thing.

There’s also a sincere but amazingly non-cloying study of Eva (Kate Bosworth, the director’s real life wife), who struggles to maintain a placid demeanor despite coming undone. Bosworth was disarmingly precise as the killjoy daughter in “Still Alice,” and she’s just as subtle here. One can imagine some interpreting her carefully reined-in work as merely vapid, but look close and her face is a minefield of minute, heartbreaking expressions.

RELATED: Kate Bosworth on "Still Alice" and dealing with dementia with humor

Eva’s plight is what makes “90 Minutes” relatable outside the megachurch circuit — that and its patient detailing of the Pipers’ practical concerns: who should look after the kids, how to arrange for post-hospital care, how to fix their considerable health care woes. (Maybe churn the unhappy experience into a slim tome that tells hundreds of millions they’re right about the afterlife?) At times Polish’s gentle approach almost seems right; at other, more frequent times it all feels like padding — a slim tale going nowhere and not fast.

Despite some weird and/or admirably graceful Polish flourishes, it still regularly kowtows to its chief market. There’s even a doozy of a moment where Eva sadly stares at neighboring fireworks as Don, on the narration track, rhapsodizes that “Those were the last fireworks left in our marriage.” It’s not always clear who’s at the helm: Polish or the company looking to sell it to believers. But the battle between simple religious propaganda, a drama about hardships and the occasional bizarre aside make it, if nowhere near good, then something at least.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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