Review: ‘Heaven Is For Real’ Is Not Shameless Pandering, It’s Much Worse

Heaven Is For Real, And If You Don’t Believe Me You’re A Jerk

There was an old Dave Chappelle sketch from right around the time Antwone Fisher came out, where Dave wondered aloud how heroic his own life story might look if he was writing it himself, the way the real Antwone Fisher wrote Antwone Fisher. The subtext of which was, What kind of asshole writes a hagiographic biopic about himself?

The answer, of course, is “Todd Burpo.” Heaven is for Real might not be a biopic, exactly, but Todd Burpo is exactly that kind of asshole. Heaven Is For Real is based on the 163-page 2010 “book” (isn’t 163 pages more of a pamphlet?) by Burpo and Lynn Vincent, Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story Of His Trip To Heaven And Back, which I’d like to think of the world’s first Upworthy headline. And now, it’s a Christploitation picture produced with the backing of Godless Hollywood, in the person of former Fox head Joe Roth, whose parents are literally atheist Commies, and mega-church pastor TD Jakes (seen here being palmed by Tyler Perry like a basketball). The cynical opportunism of the film is illustrated best by the fact that it’s constantly selling the idea of this fake cultural divide, despite being produced by a coalition made up of the supposedly opposing sides. But we’ll get to that.

Shot in a sort of Budweiser commercial/country music style of Heartland porn, with many, many sweeping shots of wheat and corn fields bathed in what I can only describe as a Kinkadian light, Heaven Is For Real opens with Todd Burpo taking his folksy Ford pick-up truck down to the local loadin’ dock to fix up their garage door. They don’t have money to pay him for it, but even though his family is struggling, ol’ Todd is just such a man of the people that he lets them pay him in rugs to put in his church. The film is a little confusing at first, if only because Todd seems to have so many jobs. In addition to a volunteer garage door repairman, he’s also a firefighter, a pastor, a wrestling coach at the local high school, and of course the loving father to a tow-headed cherub and faithful husband to a big-titted, milk-fed redhead (Kelly Reilly, who, in the great tradition of Hollywood casting, is 14 years younger than the guy playing her husband, Greg Kinnear).

After driving his rugs to the church and showing the wrestling boys some of the finer points of the single leg takedown, Todd drives home through a gorgeous, fairy-tale expanse of golden wheat fields in his pick-up truck, arriving at his Hallmark mansion with wrap-around porch where his beautiful wife is singing church songs with the local choir. “Ugh, Mondays,” Todd mutters to himself. Isn’t life hard?! Sometimes your supple siren of a wife just won’t stop singing hymns! What a case of the Mondays!

That’s when we meet Todd’s loving, flaxen haired boy angel Colton, who’s always doing cute stuff like imitating a dog’s howl while the camera fixates creepily on his big blue eyes. He runs up excitedly to greet his daddy who tickles his belly and promises to take him out for pizza, just as soon as he’s finished comforting the dying at the hospital free of charge (I’m not making any of this up). The scene’s like a Rockwell painting, only less nuanced, and strangely unstuck in time. It feels like what it is: propaganda. Todd’s beautiful wife is always bribing him to do chores while whispering promise to make it up to him with some unspeakable (but presumably church-approved) sex act. SEE? GOD-FEARING MARRIED FOLKS CAN HAVE SEXY FUN TOO! THEY’RE PROBABLY HAVING SEXIER SEX THAN YOU!

Though supposedly about “a little boy’s trip to heaven,” about three of the film’s 100 minutes actually deal with the heaven trip, while the other 97 are devoted mainly to telling us what a stand-up guy Todd Burpo is, despite all the jerks trying to bring him down. Did you know he bravely held the family together, donated clothes to needy Mexicans, and became an inspiration to the community? Did you know he’s such a team player that he once spiral fractured his shin trying a leg out a triple in a charity softball game, or that he had to pass some kidney stones?