“By the end of the entire event, I was so moved I wanted to vomit.”
Between Son of God, God’s Not Dead, and now Heaven is for Real, my local multiplex is beginning to look like a lineup of topics for Sunday Mass. There’s nothing wrong with several Christian films playing in the theater around the same timeframe, in my book, but when they’re all mediocre to average, one hopes that instead of three subpar films we’d eventually get one sublime one.
Optimism for Heaven is for Real being Christian film’s present silver lining quickly dwindled about a third of the way through the picture. You’ve heard of movies “wearing their heart on their sleeve,” meaning they always make their emotions very clear to the audience and possess no attempt to disguise their feelings? Heaven is for Real rips its heart out of its chest, plasters it on both of its sleeve, its shirt, its pants-legs, and shows it to you up close to show just how emotionally potent it is.
Not since Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close have I seen such a trite, oversentimentalized film that’s overcompensating desire to make the audience teary-eyed and sad distracts its overall ability to humanize a story. We’re given pawns of a screenplay, not characters, beautifully painted postcard landscapes we never interact with, and a story that never gets adequately developed because of the film’s constant desire to make us cry and smother us with irritating, manufactured cuteness.
The film concerns the Burpo family, lead by Todd (Greg Kinnear), a small-town pastor and firefighter in Nebraska, who lives with his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), and two kids Colton (Connor Corum) and Cassie (Lane Styles). One day, Colton contracts a painful and weakening illness that makes his temperature rise several degrees and his ability to move restricted. When taken to the hospital, Colton is found to have a ruptured appendix, and is in critical condition, with his father yelling at God at a church and his mother bawling in the waiting room, calling friends and family to ask to pray for him. Feeling your tearducts swell and beginning to push tears through? It gets worse.
Colton winds up making a miraculous recovery, but returns to his parents with unbelievable details describing Heaven, who is up there, what it looks like, and what happened to him while he was there, even though at no point in the operation did he die or lose brain activity. His parents are skeptical, but Colton seems dead serious as he describes what occurred. Todd and Sonja now need to cope with their son’s proposed discovery in addition to the media attention their child is now getting.
Let’s start with Connor Corum, who is by no means a bad actor, but one manipulated by clever little editing and directing tricks. Every chance Randall Wallace gets to paint Corum in a dreamy, glowing light that feels perfunctory and desperately manipulative, he does, emphasizing Corum’s blonde hair, immersing blue eyes, and warm innocence consistently. Cor-um unfortunately isn’t given scenes where he is overwhelmed, frustrated, or angered by all the media coverage and attention he’s getting. He comes close at one point, but never does he seem to be actually that overwhelmed over angry, which really doesn’t work in favor for his debut role.
But the main reason Heaven is for Real is such an awful film is that it’s emotional manipulation to the extreme. Almost every scene that has the ability is turned into a scene that will make the audience cry or feel sad inside is. Consider when Colton is being rushed to the hospital and drops his Spider-Man action figure; Wallace is careful to show Spider-Man fall to the ground and land with a thud, showing how weak Colton has gotten (he can’t even hold on to his precious toy). Or even scenes that show Todd yelling at God, Colton describing how he saw his stillborn sister in Heaven, Colton telling his dad he saw his long-dead grandfather in Heaven, etc. Wallace and writer Chris Parker don’t seem to want to bring this story to a more prominent life (despite the book the film is based on doing a pretty good job), but simply milk it for every sentimental cent it could provide. Then there’s the abundance of obvious dialog in the film which is equal parts unrealistic and frustrating.
I have no issue with films that are sad, dark, or classifiable as “tearjerkers.” I do have an issue with films that predicate themselves off of making the audience cry and emerge out of the theater with tear-soaked faces and tissues. Heaven is for Real is so manipulative, cloying, and artificial that it completely distracts from its nudging themes of faith and togetherness. By the end of the entire event, I was so moved I wanted to vomit.
Review by Lead Film Critic, Steve Pulaski