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Review: 'Heaven is for Real' tries to be more than Christian kitsch — sort of

The mega-bestseller "Heaven is for Real" becomes a movie that tries to portray wrestling with faith — or at least it tries to try.

Greg Kinnear promises his son he'll make them millions in "Heaven is for Real." Credit: Allen Fraser Greg Kinnear promises his son he'll make them millions in "Heaven is for Real."
Credit: Allen Fraser

'Heaven is for Real'
Director: Randall Wallace
Stars: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly
Rating: PG
2 (out of 5) Globes

There’s actually a terrific film that could be made from “Heaven is for Real,” the mega-bestseller in which a cash-strapped Nebraska preacher used his son’s near-near-death experience to create a boundless cash cow. Title be damned, this is a story about doubt — not about the Christian faith, which goes unwavering, but about whether you believe your four year old (Connor Corum in the film), who won’t shut up about meeting (a white, hot) Jesus, asking angels to sing Queen (not likely) and hanging with dead relatives.

The book is a queasy mix of bald greediness and utter sincerity. The movie is too. Pastor dad Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is relieved when his son escapes from a near fatal case of appendicitis. He's less sure what to do when he talks of seeing heaven, and generally spouting about things he's had ingrained in his head since birth. A smart film would retain the ambiguity and explore issues surrounding faith. It certainly wouldn't bust out these visions, whose production values wouldn’t cut muster on the Trinity Broadcast Network.

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This film does just that. But it does try —or it tries to try. The narrative is all about whether Todd should believe his son's logic-straining claims which so strain logic that many in his small, churchy town see through it too. It even allows people to bring up criticisms (though it stops miles short of name-dropping Richard Dawkins). But bringing up is all it does; it doesn't actually engage. Kinnear's Todd is beset upon by all sides —by mean atheists, by mean parishioners, by the progressively religious, even, eventually, by his goodly wife (Kelly Reilly). He’s even mocked by firemen.

Time and time again, someone knocks down Todd's argument. He doesn't respond; he just makes sad faces and stares out into beautiful fields. Its debate style could be called "the argument through victimization": It wants you to side with him not because he has the better case, but because everyone else are jerks. When Todd does start pushing back, he falls back on anti-intellectualism, crowing about “simple people.” One character laments how everyone has learned to “stop feeling and start thinking.” Here’s a film very much for feels over thoughts.

To its credit, "Heaven is for Real" oozes a genuine niceness. It's an unapologetically churchy movie, that doesn't blink an eye as people pray or sit in pews. It doesn’t treat them as alien weirdos, but as normal, good people, which can be perversely refreshing. And shoddy CGI kitsch aside, it's a (relative) beaut. Director Randall Wallace — who wrote “Braveheart” and helmed “We Were Soldiers,” one of the few pro-‘Nam Vietnam War films — languishes over God’s Country fields, as though this was Midwestern porn. (This is good because otherwise the action is mostly Kinnear talking or thinking.) Kinnear is good too: You don’t believe that his Todd right, but you believe that he believes he’s right. And you don’t even believe he’d milk this to make it rain, which might be the film's naughtiest debasement of truth.

Still, playing it straight does mean that, if looked at in a not nice way, “Heaven is for Real” is the tale of a very dim man fleeced by a kid. Then again, Burpo did parlay this incident into a bestseller that’s been made into a major motion picture, and one that features a fine performance from Kinnear. This film will add to the millions the Burpos no doubt keep in their money bin. Who’s the real dummy?

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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