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'Heaven Is for Real' review: Story of faith reduced to fairy tale

From left, Lane Styles, Kelly Reilly and Connor

From left, Lane Styles, Kelly Reilly and Connor Corumin a scene from "Heaven Is For Real." Credit: AP / Allen Fraser

You might think that proving the existence of God is one of those philosophical chimeras that people stopped chasing many centuries ago. René Descartes, St. Augustine and not even Jesus Christ could do it, at least to the satisfaction of strictly logical minds. But then, isn't that the whole point of faith? Believers believe without proof, not because of it.

That's not good enough for "Heaven Is for Real," based on the nonfiction bestseller by Todd Burpo, pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in tiny Imperial, Neb. The story goes that Todd's 4-year-old son, Colton, entered emergency surgery for a burst appendix and emerged with reports of a visit to heaven. As proof, Colton (played by newcomer Connor Corum, all blue-eyes and cherubic cheeks) said he saw winged angels, sat on Jesus' lap and spoke to his great-grandfather.

"Heaven Is for Real" tries to bolster this story by casting Todd (played with great sensitivity by Greg Kinnear) as a reluctant believer. If so, Todd's lack of critical thinking skills is jaw-dropping. He's not convinced that Colton really met Jesus until Colton mentions seeing the crucifixion wounds. That settles it. When the local townsfolk (Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church play the Burpos' married friends) begin to balk at Colton's fanciful story, Todd sticks by his son. Kelly Reilly plays the family's long-suffering matriarch, Sonja Burpo.

Directed and co-written by Randall Wallace, whose credits include "Braveheart" and "Secretariat," (two not-so-coded religious allegories) "Heaven Is for Real" insists on having its faith and proving it, too. It paints Todd and his son as persecuted saints of a sort, yet repeatedly offers embarrassingly unconvincing "facts" to support their cause. As a result, the story begins to sound like malarkey at best, charlatanry at worst.

By rights, "Heaven Is for Real" ought to draw scorn from both atheists and believers alike. It's a mockery of basic logic that also manages to strip religious faith of its complexity, mystery and nuance. It was Joseph Campbell who said that when myths are turned into facts, they lose their transformative power and become dogma. "Heaven Is for Real" wants it that way.

PLOT A little boy emerges from surgery with stories of a visit to heaven.


CAST Greg Kinnear, Connor Corum, Kelly Reilly


BOTTOM LINE A supposedly true story that uses faulty logic to reduce the complexity of faith to a fairy-tale. By rights, it should displease atheists and believers alike.

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