Lazarus might not have revealed much about the afterlife after Christ brought him back from the dead in the Gospel of John, but believers who have been resuscitated in modern times apparently aren’t so reticent. Not long ago we were treated to “Heaven Is For Real,” in which a four-year old boy had a vision of paradise during a near-death experience and duly reported it to his pastor father, who wrote it up as a book, which was then adapted into the film starring Greg Kinnear. Now we have an adult version of much the same story. “90 Minutes in Heaven” is based on the book by Don Piper, a Baptist minister who was restored to life after being pronounced dead in an auto accident when another preacher prayed over his corpse and, after a long rehabilitation, reveals that he too had undergone a heavenly journey before returning to the land of the living.
Like “Heaven Is For Real” (a phrase actually repeated in the present film), “90 Minutes in Heaven” is a slightly slicker production than is usually the case in so-called faith-based films. It still looks to have had a relatively modest budget provided by Giving Films, a subsidiary of the Family Christian Stores chain, but was written and directed by Michael Polish, a seasoned filmmaker whose work with his brother Mark (“Twin Falls Idaho” and “Northfork” in particular) has won much critical acclaim. And like “Heaven,” the leads are played by recognizable actors—Hayden Christensen as Piper and Kate Bosworth (Polish’s own wife) as his spouse Eva. Veterans like Nicholas Pryor, Marshall Bell and Fred Dalton Thompson also show up in supporting roles.
Unhappily, that pedigree doesn’t mean much. The picture proves yet another case of preaching to the choir, who might not be much bothered by the fact that the dialogue Polish has extracted from the book is trite and stilted, and the performances he draws from his cast wooden. That’s especially true of Christensen, who’s never been a terribly vibrant presence on screen but here seems especially benumbed—and not just in the overlong middle section covering his hospitalization, which is dragged out beyond endurance, but even in the pre-crash and back-home bookend chapters. Bosworth is a trifle more animated, but she seems constrained not merely by the material but by the period fashions. Dwight Yoakam turns up briefly as a shady, good-ole-boy publicity-seeking lawyer, and though his acting is at best rudimentary, at least he brings a touch of levity to the otherwise deadly-earnest proceedings. Apart from the veterans who pop up from time to time, the remainder of the supporting cast is mostly amateurish; a closing scene in which Piper, now on crutches, comforts a wheelchair-bound young man is simply embarrassing. In fact, when the real Piper shows up before the credits to give a brief sermon, he seems less stilted than most of the actors.
Of course, what one waits for, as “90 Minutes” slogs on for more than two hours, is a glimpse of Don’s vision of heaven. But it turns out to be a pretty dull affair—just a bunch of smiling deceased folk from his past, dressed in their Sunday best, greeting him as they all walk toward the pearly gates, bathed in the glow of an otherworldly light. The effect is distinctly underwhelming; even the child’s recollection of “Heaven Is For Real,” despite its absurdities, was more eye-catching. And it certainly doesn’t help that it’s accompanied by Michael W. Smith’s banal score, which careens annoyingly between tinkling sentimentality and thunderous triumphalism throughout.
“90 Minutes in Heaven” may strike a welcome chord with the evangelical groups at whom it’s obviously aimed. But for others the ploddingly preachy picture will seem more like a stint in purgatory, if not someplace even more uncomfortable.