‘Heaven’ has high drama, low payoff

‘Heaven’ has high drama, low payoff

By Karsten Burgstahler

For all the big questions director Randall Wallace’s “Heaven is for Real” (Rated PG; 100 Min.) asks about the afterlife, too many are answered with a shrug. But it’s not for lack of trying — at least not on the actors’ parts.

Wallace, the man behind other inspirational dramas such as 2010’s “Secretariat,” approaches the material with such a ho-hum attitude that what could have served as an effective, touching drama ends up being merely melodramatic. The true story follows Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), an everyday man living in Nebraska who serves as a garage-door repairman, volunteer firefighter and pastor in his small town. We quickly learn that many citizens in town hold multiple jobs, a fact Wallace seems to find humorous.

After a first act dedicated to setting up Todd’s trials and tribulations, including one awkward scene where he passes kidney stones, his son Colton has an appendicitis attack and comes close to death. Colton miraculously survives, but is soon telling tales of how he saw Heaven and heard God speak. Soon he’s relaying secrets and details about his parents he would have no other way of knowing.


The movie aims to please believers and non-believers alike. This goal collides with the plotting during the film’s climax, when Burpo gives a sermon professing his faith. But he doesn’t really say anything.

“Heaven” is the kind of movie that needs deep exploration and an affirmative ending, especially when the image of Heaven Colton describes doesn’t mesh with biblical teachings on the afterlife. But instead of taking a definitive stand for God and Colton, or backing away from them, the writers settle for mediocrity. It’s doubtful the real Burpo was this indecisive.

This ending comes after a film ok with plodding along, assuming its audience is captivated. And they are, at least whenever Kinnear is on screen. He brings an authenticity to Burpo rarely seen in religious filmmaking, even when he’s battling a poor script. It doesn’t matter with whom he’s acting, he still manages to elevate the scene. Not that his wife Sonja Burpo (Kelly Reilly) needs the help. She holds her own in scenes with Kinnear. The married couple, which faces both huge hospital bills and a son treated like an outcast by the community, is by far the best the big screen has seen in a while.

Burpo’s relationship with his congregation isn’t well developed beyond the occasional scene with Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church), Burpo’s best friend, or Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale). But when we do spend some time with Burpo and Rawling, the film delivers emotional sparks. Rawling has a past filled with sorrow and Burpo struggles to connect with her.

But at the same time, the congregation, led by Rawling, tries to separate itself from Burpo, fearing that the church will become a media circus. Nothing happens, though. One reporter wants to write a story and one person calls him from a radio station. That’s it. Wallace paints the movie as if it’s a national controversy, trying to make it more dramatic than it really was.

In the process of trying to up the ante when there are no high stakes to begin with, Wallace loses sight of the movie’s heart — the personal struggles his characters deal with after Colton’s revelations. The story needs to be more focused on the individual, rather than Burpo’s us-against-the-world mentality.

All of this, building to a non-eventful climax, makes for a tame movie with a few exceptional scenes interspersed throughout. When a movie pushes the theological envelope but comes to a generic conclusion, it’s not a test of faith. It’s a test of patience.


Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected]on Twitter @kburgstahler_DE or 536-3311 ext. 254.