The empirical question of heaven’s existence is a rhetorical one by default – by the time you know the answer, it’s a little late to share it with anyone else. That is, unless you’re real-life Colton Burpo, the 4-year-old son of a Midwestern pastor who matter-of-factly claimed he visited the celestial kingdom while his body lay on an operating table with a ruptured appendix. Based on the bestselling 2010 Christian book of the same name, Heaven Is for Real is a well-meaning but misshapen movie about the folly of pursuing answers to unanswerable questions.
Colton’s fairly traditional version of heaven is out of a children’s book of Bible stories: a place imbued with light that is inhabited by ethereal angels and a fair-skinned, light-eyed Jesus who (less-than-traditionally) rides a horse. But disturbingly enough, certain elements of the tow-headed young boy’s account of his heavenly visit defy rational explanation, such as details about the unborn sister who preceded him and the paternal grandfather he never met. While Colton’s point of view (as seen through newcomer Corum’s translucently blue eyes) is central to the narrative, it is his father’s test of faith that gives the film its lumpy form. For Todd Burpo, a financially strapped man of the cloth who’s known his share of adversity, his son’s seemingly fantastic story could substantiate the existence of heaven if it actually happened. The question of fact or fantasy becomes his personal and professional obsession, one that could cost him his ministry, his reputation, and perhaps his family.
Movies about the nature of faith usually defy cinematic translation, and Heaven Is for Real is no exception. While its heart is in the right place, the film fails to distill Todd’s conflict with any dramatic gravitas. It plays too cute most of the time, unable to shift into a loftier (and more serious) gear when the script demands it. And it makes the serious mistake of reenacting Colton’s visit to heaven, which director Wallace should have left to filmgoers’ imaginations. As the troubled father and man of God, an earnest Kinnear does his best to make it work. There’s a convincing humility in his performance that’s far, far removed from the smugness that marked his early career. At the film’s conclusion, Kinnear preaches a fine sermon that doesn’t proselytize or judge. It’s an “on Earth as it is in heaven” homily that resonates a time or two, no matter what your religious or spiritual beliefs may be. It’s not great filmmaking, or even good filmmaking for that matter, but you may find yourself saying “Amen” nevertheless.