** (out of four)
There's at least one indisputable truth in "Heaven is for Real," stated by Reverend Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear): "What we believe changes what we perceive."
Of course it does. It's the reason some will see that the film is based on a true story and interpret that as the true story of a little boy who saw heaven and returned to tell about it, and others will see it as the story of a boy who said he did. Regardless, it's a movie that toys with ideas only to cast them aside and let feelings stand in their place.
A husband and father of two who somehow finds time to be a volunteer firefighter, wrestling coach and owner of a garage door service and repair company, Todd is stumped when his four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) begins telling unusual stories after surviving a ruptured appendix. The kid says he had an out-of-body experience and witnessed his mom (Kelly Reilly of "Flight") asking townspeople to pray and dad "yelling at God," which he was, in the inevitable "Don't you take my son!" scene. More notably, Colton says that he went to heaven, where he sat on Jesus' lap and the angels laughed when the boy asked if they could sing Queen's "We Will Rock You."
Thankfully, the angels make no ultra-conservative statements about the band's singer, the late Freddie Mercury, or his spot in heaven.
For a while, "Heaven is for Real" surprises: It threatens to take a faith-based story (note the pre-Good Friday release date) and suggest that believers may backpedal when faced with a spiritual challenge. It's only a tease; the film never requires Todd—or anyone else—to make a tough decision. The church board (including Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale) ponders replacing him, but not urgently. Todd owes mega-bucks but never considers profiting from his son's story. The Reverend mostly brushes aside the question of how confirming heaven's existence may impact how people live.
So "Heaven is for Real" fumbles for um-when-in-doubt-just-believe answers instead of following through on the hard questions. Puzzling on a lower level are the bizarre filmographies of co-writer Chris Parker (who wrote "Vampire in Brooklyn," straight-to-video "Mulan II" and dance-related bomb "Battle of the Year") and director/co-writer Randall Wallace ("The Man in the Iron Mask," "We Were Soldiers," "Secretariat"). They've now collaborated to depict a conventional version of heaven and perhaps the first movie to take place in Nebraska and Lithuania and absolutely nowhere in between.
Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.
Copyright © 2015, RedEye