I nearly forgot to write my review for this movie, which says a great deal. You’d think a movie about an individual’s personal glimpse into the hereafter and a visible confirmation of one’s faith would inspire a great movie. Since it’s based on the bestselling book of the same name, which many have thrust in my face and said, “Hey man, you need to read this!” I’d hope the film would strike a chord in me.
Regardless of whether you believe in the afterlife, this movie won’t change your view, let alone hold your interest for the 100 minutes its onscreen. Like many other failed efforts to visualize The Great Hereafter, this botches the opportunity. As a visualization of Heaven and a chance to explore difficult issues regarding a person’s faith, it’s a dull, schmaltzy, cinematic Hallmark card.
Greg Kinnear stars as Pastor Burpo, a hard working family man who lives in Imperial, Nebraska with his wife (Kelly Reilly) and two children. Burpo balances being a volunteer firefighter, giving a hearty message to his flock every Sunday and being an available family man. It was wise of the film to give the characters time to establish themselves, before the less than enthralling second act detours the story towards the supernatural.
Burpo’s son, Colton (played by Connor Corum) is hospitalized and emerges from the experience claiming he left his body and spent time with Jesus in a celestial state with other souls. Initially, it sounds like a child’s fantasy coping with a traumatic experience, until Colton’s revelations (“Daddy, I saw you alone, in a room, yelling at God!”) strike his parents as factual. At least, that’s the idea. It would be a tall order to find a great child actor around the age of four to carry this movie. Corum is a cute kid but always appears to be parroting lines provided by an acting coach. The next Haley Joel Osment was needed to pull this off and the movie didn’t find him.
I haven’t read the book, which I’ve been told is persuasive and powerful. If that’s the case, the film is the opposite. Colton’s declarations of supernatural visions made me an un-believer. I never bought it and the screenplay presents plenty of secular possibilities to provide plausible explanations for what he’s telling his father.
Still, Kinnear never hits a false note. In fact, he’s so good that even the scenes where he’s delivering a sermon are engaging and performed with conviction. Keilly, who matches Kinnear, is a revelation–last seen in Flight playing Denzel Washington’s hospitalized companion, she hits emotional notes far beyond what the screenplay required.
If this came from a small independent studio, it might look like a tiny step up from most faith-based movies, as this is an attractively shot film. But since it’s directed by Randall Wallace, who helmed We Were Soldiers and wrote Braveheart, you expect so much more. The failure is at the writing level: it feels like too much is missing. It’s suggested that things get tense at Burpo’s church, that Burpo himself may not believe in Heaven and that the media invades his church and family life. None of this is fleshed out.
The CGI-heavy scenes of Heaven are pretty to look at but unimpressive. Like Resurrection with Ellen Burstyn, the depiction of life after death is limited by a lack of imagination. The grim, goofy but wildly ambitious What Dreams May Come is still the only film to show us a Heaven rich with ideas and possibilities.
This might have worked but doesn’t try hard enough to sell its gimmicky premise and, most essentially, never evokes a sense of awe. In fact, the film’s biggest revelation is that Jesus looks like Kenny Loggins.
Score: ** (1-5 Star Scale)