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Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:01 am

Pace undercuts Heaven

Greg Kinnear and Connor Corum in Heaven is for Real.


“Pillar of the community” and “salt of the earth” are the kinds of things you’d use to describe Todd Burpo. He belongs to his town’s volunteer fire department, is a loving father and faithful husband and has no problem practicing what he preaches, which is a good thing. He’s also a pastor in the close-knit Nebraska town where he lives. However, fate throws him and his wife, Sonja, a curve when their 4-year-old son, Colton, nearly dies from a ruptured appendix. Though the boy ends up coming through, he contends that while on the operating table he went to heaven, met Jesus, and was introduced to the sister his mother miscarried that he never knew about, as well as his father’s grandfather whom he never met.

Needless to say, this causes Todd to question his own faith and this crisis forms the crux of Heaven is for Real, the best-selling book he co-wrote about this experience, as well as the big screen adaptation directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat). Heaven comes at the end of a recent spate of religious films that have been released in quick succession (Son of God, Noah, God is Not Dead) and falls somewhere in the middle as far as quality but is perhaps, to its detriment, the most earnest of the lot. Well acted and brimming with good intentions, the movie suffers from a ponderous, plodding pace and a lack of clarity where the conflicts between characters are concerned.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that it sends Burpo (a fine Greg Kinnear), the leader of a religious community, into a tailspin. The suggestion that he was talking the secular talk but not walking its walk is an intriguing premise that’s not fully explored here. While it’s obvious the character now doubts the existence of heaven though his son relates a first-hand description of it, little is done to explain why he feels this way, especially when presented with some degree of proof. Delving a bit more into the character’s past would have put his current crisis into a context the film sorely misses.

Equally puzzling is the reaction of Burpo’s wife and members of his congregation to his sudden doubts. It’s unclear why Sonja (a very sincere Kelly Reilly) is so agitated with her husband’s continued search for answers about their son’s experience and her angry outbursts come from out of the blue. Meanwhile, the reaction of Burpo’s congregation, which comes off as more irritated by this seeming miracle than anything, is without reason as well. An open conversation in which they could talk about Colton’s experience and what it might mean would have served as an opportunity to begin a spirited dialogue on matters of faith.

Obviously, the film isn’t concerned about this. In the end, Heaven states the obvious – that there’s a big difference from those who simply give lip service to the gospel and those who embrace it and live their lives accordingly. However, what the film fails to do is show us how those who see Colton’s claim as a confirmation of their beliefs reach the conclusions they do. Yes, a great deal revolves around simply taking a leap of faith but to discuss what spurs a person to believe would have made Wallace’s film the rare movie that actually examines issues regarding modern religion. No, Heaven’s intent is to preach to the choir and many will embrace its message. That it fails to take a hard look at the questions it poses and takes so long in doing so, failed to make a believer out of me.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at

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