Sunday, July 27, 2014

Catching Up: "Heaven is for Real"

 1.5 / 5 

It is entirely possible to make a good film about religious faith.

Think about a movie like The Exorcist, which despite all the pea soup and rotating heads, was a movie about how a priest who was losing his faith and a woman who never had any discovered they both were right.

There's a movie like the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, in which a man watched his life fall apart and wondered why he was so faithful to a God who treated him so badly.

Look at Field of Dreams, a movie about one man's faith in an unseeable, unknowable spirit, and the way his family supported his convictions, no matter what.

Movies like The Passion of the Christ or The Last Temptation of Christ were not simply about religion but about the way their directors thought so carefully and so long about matters of faith.

More recently, Noah was nine types of whacko, but it was rarely boring and no matter what you thought of the rock creatures trudging around helping Noah build his ark, it was clear that Darren Aronofsky felt passionately about the story he was telling.

In the 1950s, movies about religion and the Bible were mainstream, blockbuster smashes.  Ben-Hur, The Robe and The Ten Commandments were big-screen epics that weren't simply "faith-based," they were full-on Biblical movies.

I say all this just to reassure myself that it is, indeed, not only possible to make a good film about religious faith, but to prove that it has been done, over and over.  It is entirely possible to make a good film about religious faith.

Heaven is for Real isn't one of them.

This is a goody-two-shoes, ultra-wholesome slice of the Heartland that takes an interesting concept and polishes it to such a bright, shining luster that everything that could be potentially interesting gets rubbed away, too.

Heaven is for Real takes an eternity to get to its main story, which is a sure sign it doesn't really have a story.  It's about this really great guy (Greg Kinnear) who lives in a big house in rural Nebraska with his sweet-but-sexy wife and his two adorable moppets.  Times have been tough, but he's the kind of guy who's not going to bow to the pressure of something like Obama's Economy; he repairs garage doors and takes items for trade instead of accepting cash payments, because, gosh, things are rough all over.  He's also the high-school wrestling coach.  He's also the town's preacher.

I don't know when he has time for everything else, because he's always being asked by people to do all sorts of favors like fixing garage doors in exchange for carpet remnants and visiting dying people to give them non-denominational last rites.

He is on the softball team, too, of course, and one day he breaks his leg.  Later, when his leg is healing, he gets kidney stones, and his friend the town banker thinks the kidney stones are really funny, and his sweet-but-sexy wife takes their little boy on an outing when Dad is passing his stones, while the soundtrack plays the kind of jaunty, happy music that usually accompanies a caper than ends with someone getting pushed in a lake and emerging with a happy smile.

What does any of this have to do with finding out whether Heaven is for real?

Nothing.  Not a thing.  It doesn't have to do with anything at all except to say this guy is Just Like You, if you are white, lower-middle-class, more or less unemployed, and go to church at least once a week.  In other words, this movie panders to the only audience it knows it's going to get.

There are a couple of black people, and I spotted two guys in the church congregation who might have been "those kind."  I don't know.  They weren't interesting, though.  No one in this movie is interesting.  They are the kind of people that used to populate Disney movies like Charley and the Angel and The $1,000,000 Duck, but at least those people said things like, "Gol-dang-it," which we all know was a G-rated way of saying a bad curse word.  The people in Heaven is for Real have never thought about cursing.  They wouldn't dare.  It might offend someone.

Anyway, finally for no reason other than the movie has to have something happen, Dad's little boy starts throwing up.  It turns out he has a ruptured appendix.  They race him to the hospital and the little boy loses his grip on his Spider-Man™ action figure -- in slow motion so we know this is a really serious moment (and also so we'll know this film is from Sony, producers of the Spider-Man™franchise and also the happy providers of the VAIO computers used in this production).

Then Something Really Big Happens and the little boy goes to Heaven.

He only reveals his journey after he's fully recovered.  For the remaining hour or six of the film, Dad looks perplexed and shocked and tries to find answers.

At one point, he goes to see a Liberal Psychologist, who just says that maybe there are other explanations for why the little boy said the entrance to Heaven was through the doors of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church, and that the first person he saw in Heaven was Jesus, who was fair-skinned and blue-eyed and wearing pressed white robes and sandals exactly like the ones Sunday school teachers tell 5-year-olds that Jesus wears.

There are angels who look pretty much exactly like angels look in all the children's books, and the angels giggle when the little boy says they should sing "We Will Rock You," which is a little family joke.  A very little one.

Anyway, no one can believe that the little boy went to Heaven, except everyone believes it and eventually he writes a best-selling book and everyone lives Happily Ever After.

You don't see Heaven is for Real because you wonder if Heaven is for real.  And, I guess, if you like your religion to be very safe and wholesome and American, this might be sort of a nice (if meandering) story.

It's just a really bad movie.

If you haven't seen it, you can just take that on faith.

Viewed July 25, 2014


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