Before you decide to crap upon or otherwise dismiss this film about a real-life smalltown minister whose young son has a near-death experience, during which he claims to have been to heaven, be confident in the fact that this is not a film trying to make you believe in God or heaven or Jesus or angels, although all four are a part of this story. Although the phenomenon of faith-based films still baffles me in their existence (preaching to the choir never seemed like the best kind of recruiting tool), HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (based on the best-selling book by Todd Burpo, played in the film by Greg Kinnear) is more the story of a man of the cloth who has his belief structure challenged, not by non-believers, but by his son laying eyes on the very things he encourages other to believe in every Sunday.
The very nature of faith is to believe in something because you have never seen or heard from; it's an extreme form of trust, and you agree to do so because it feels right in your heart. But when 4-year-old Colton Burpo (newcomer Connor Corum) tells his father, "I heard angels sing, I met Jesus, I saw your long-dead father, I met my miscarried sister, I saw you in the hospital chapel yelling at God," it's a lot for him to accept all at once. Because when you get something resembling proof of what you previously only had faith in, that's a whole other level of believing. And that subject alone would be a fascinating one for a movie to tackle, but maybe not this one.
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL gets quite a bit right, but the whole package feels too quaint and is delivered too by the numbers. I was surprised how much of the film deals with Todd's spiritual shake-up; he actually says to his congregation that he's not sure what he believes any longer, and that's enough to get the church board members in a tizzy and threaten to remove him if he doesn't get his head on straight. Strangely enough, the board members aren't concerned that he'll stop believing in God and heaven; they're afraid he's believe his own son's claims. Kinnear is an excellent choice for this character; he's a charming enough guy to believe he can not only hold a crowd with his laid-back sermons (we never ever see him in any kind of collar, because he's not a priest), but also a talented enough actor to play the anxiety-riddled family man.
The supporting cast is stronger than you typically find in a faith-based film (I'm talking to you, OCTOBER BABY, FIREPROOF, and COURAGEOUS, and wait until you get a look at the upcoming MOMS' NIGHT OUT...oof!), with such actors as Kelly Reilly (FLIGHT) as Todd's loyal wife, Thomas Haden Church and the always-reliable Margo Martindale as a church board member who shares a particular scene with Kinnear that almost brought me to tears. More interestingly, the film was directed by Randall Wallace (WE WERE SOLDIERS, SECRETARIAT, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, and the writer of BRAVEHEART and PEARL HARBOR), who clearly is all about the sweeping, epic tales. I'm guessing the unusual nature of the Burpos' dilemma captured him more than the godly elements specifically.
But even a filmmaker like Wallace can't overcome the overly saccharine nature of the storytelling. It unfolds like a folk tale, rather than a development that put a severe strain on this family. We learn early on that Todd has many jobs in the community, which at first seems to be a way of showing us that he's a working-class man of the people. But we soon come to realize that he works so many jobs because he and his family are having trouble making ends meet on a preacher's salary, combined with especially tough economic times. That is the real drama of this film, and it's unceremoniously pushed to the background in favor of less compelling material.
I suppose I should thank someone in charge that there are no manufactured villains to contend with, just a few concerned parishioners who just want somewhere to feel holy every Sunday without being challenged (I'm have no doubt they get plenty of challenges the rest of the week). I'm not bagging on the film because of its religious tones; those are actually fascinating to me. It's the not-so-veiled attempts not to offend anyone one, either in the film or in the audience.
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL is not a terrible movie; anyone who says it is probably thought so before they walked into the theater to see it. It's simply, whole-heartedly average—an intense beige that offers no enlightenment or resolution. If there's any message here, it's to believe in something, even if that something has nothing to do with God. That's good advice, I suppose, but it doesn't make for an especially interesting viewing experience.