By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 22, 2014 at 4:46 PM

If I’m being honest, I normally try to review and grade this latest flock of religious, mainly Christian-aimed films, on a bit of a curve. The latest crop – namely "Son of God" and "God’s Not Dead" – sure is making it hard to be generous though.

The former exploited its hungry, already half-in-the-door audience by sneaking a shabby, re-edited TV movie into theaters; the latter is merely a turgid, smug, noxiously simplistic, anti-intellectual and generally hateful piece of garbage propaganda – I’ve been holding that in for a while. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, they’re also both artlessly and soullessly inert projects with weak acting, heavy-handed scripts and poorly assembled stories.

That brings us to "Heaven Is for Real," a moderately welcome upgrade for the Christian film norm. That’s not to say it doesn’t have many of the same problems that plague its faith-based brethren like a pestilence. Filmmaking and storytelling are still well below preaching and reaffirming on its list of priorities, but the film adaptation of Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent’s best-selling non-fiction book is at least trying. "Heaven Is for Real" still almost necessitates being graded on a curve, but at least the film earns it.

Greg Kinnear plays Mr. Burpo, the reverend for a small Americana rural town in Nebraska. When he’s not giving homilies at Sunday mass, he’s working as a garage repairman, high school wrestling coach, volunteer firefighter, clean-up hitter for his softball team, loving family man (Kelly Reilly of "Sherlock Holmes" and ABC’s upcoming "Black Box" plays the doting wife) and neighbor. The first 30 minutes of plotless stalling pretty much do everything they can to establish Todd as the patron saint of modern blue collar everyman-ness. He's merely missing the Vatican-required miracle for sainthood.

Even that shows up when Todd’s young son Colton (the constantly wobbling Connor Corum, perhaps best left to hone his craft in Smuckers’ ads) falls dangerously ill from a ruptured appendix. Colton not only survives, but emerges from the hospital telling stories about his trip to heaven during surgery, complete with a cameo from Jesus himself. The young prophet becomes a mild media sensation, but the Burpos’ disbelieving congregation (led by Margo Martindale and the aptly named Thomas Haden Church) is concerned Colton’s tales will turn their church into a circus.

Meanwhile, Todd himself struggles with believing his son’s dreamy, oddly detailed descriptions. He’s pawing desperately for the same answers and reassurances that his congregation looks to him for. The family's struggle to make ends meet, now with a pile of medical bills in a flimsy economy, only makes Todd’s crisis of faith more difficult to fight through.

The cast for "Heaven Is for Real," all putting in fine work, is far more qualified and impressive than the usual band of former TV stars more commonly found in faith-based fare. Even the director – Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of "Braveheart" before heading behind the camera for features like "We Were Soldiers" – is no cheap hack either. That should be a solid hint that maybe there’s something more to the film than expected. And, lo and behold, though it arrives in theaters with a very confident – as well as grammatically aggravating – title, "Heaven Is for Real" is not quite as simplistic and preachy as its name portends (Seriously, why is the "for" in the title? This is an important question). 

Instead, the script – from Wallace and co-writer Chris Parker – wants to deal with some of the real questions that emerge from the Burpos’ situation, ones about doubt, death, faith and the afterlife. How is one supposed to react to their child talking loosely about the existence of heaven? After all, for many, heaven is more a conceptual idea than an actual place. And how do you cope with the negative things that happen in life knowing that an afterlife, Jesus and God are real, merely standing pat?

The film doesn’t dive into these topics and questions with tremendous depth, but it’s certainly more interesting than one would expect, and its final message – that what is important isn’t proving the existence of heaven, but rather seeing and helping to create a heaven-like world on Earth – is more positive and meaningful than, say, the self-congratulatory "you’re right; everyone else is wrong" mentality of "God’s Not Dead."

Unfortunately, that’s not to say that those elements don’t make it into "Heaven Is for Real." In fact, while half of the script wants to be a real look at the complicated parts of the story, the other half tries to provide the cheap crowd-pleasing message pounding and relentless tear-jerking hokum it seemingly feels indebted to its evangelical target audience. That means we still get scenes of vague anti-intellectualism involving a cold psychologist (whose office is appropriately dark and ominous) and a scene where the Burpos’ daughter punches some cardboard bullies for maximum crowd pandering. That’s okay; Jesus’ preaching of "turn the other cheek" was merely a loose suggestion.

Even with its better-than-average pedigree, the production ends up feeling just barely above a Hallmark Channel original. The heavy-handed script struggles to stretch Colton’s experience into a full-length, cohesive film, resulting in a meandering, flowless drama with underdeveloped, stake-less subplots like Todd’s possible removal from the church. 

The cloyingly insistent score hammers throughout, constantly demanding the audience feels every moment at full blast, and while some of Wallace and cinematographer Dean Semler's visuals work – especially often framing the characters small against the rich blue sky and sweeping gold fields of creation – others, like an accidentally ominous shot of Colton stumbling down a shadowy hallway that looks like something from a horror movie, are amusingly misguided. Several shots have a similar – and almost certainly unintentional – eeriness, undermining the film's weepy sermonizing seemingly in the name of making a more interesting movie.

Wallace and "Heaven Is for Real" are at their worst, however, when the film makes its few trips to the afterlife, a remarkably unimpressive mix of uninspired effects, chintzy sets and cheap costumes (Jesus's robe seems borrowed from a community theater). It’s kind of sad that a religious film’s vision of heaven manages to be far less imaginative, inspired and wondrous than even the afterlife imagined by "This Is The End." Worse yet, it undermines any of the intriguing ambiguity built into and hinted at in the story.

Then again, ambiguity isn’t really the movie’s mission. Though its message is "proving heaven is real doesn’t matter," the script keeps reassuringly whispering off to the side, "but it’s totally real." "Heaven Is for Real" has a product to sell, and it’s the Christian image of heaven – and Todd Burpo’s book, which does get prominent placement in the "where are they now" pre-credit titles (along with the hilarious note "Colton is a normal teenager." Well, if you have to say so).

That being said, the proof as presented in "Heaven Is for Real" is flimsy at best (Colton saw Jesus with holes in his hands and feet? Consider this grand mystery solved!). The film won’t have anyone other than the staunchest of believers seeing the light, but its merely tepid attempts to dig deeper had me possibly seeing a light, however faint, at the end of the tunnel for these faith-based films. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.