'90 Minutes in Heaven': Film Review

90 Minutes in Heaven Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Quantrell Colbert
A laboriously told true story.

Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth star in Michael Polish's screen adaptation of the inspirational bestseller.

One of these days, a faith-based movie will come along that is as dramatically compelling as it is earnest and well-intentioned. Until then, we're forced to make do with the likes of Michael Polish's dull adaptation of Don Piper's best-selling memoir about his long and painful recovery from a near fatal—well, technically fatal, if it's to be believed—car crash. Although it's bound to attract the faithful much like the recent surprise hit War Room, 90 Minutes in Heaven feels more like two hours in purgatory.

Boasting a relatively generous budget, excellent production values and a cast including Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth (the filmmaker's wife), this is a more polished effort than usual for the genre. It marks something of a departure for its helmer, previously responsible for such films co-written with his twin brother Mark as The Astronaut Farmer, Jackpot and Northfolk.

Christensen, affecting a heavy Southern drawl, plays Piper, a minister who in 1989 was involved in a horrific car crash with a tractor-trailer that left him declared legally dead by the first responders. His body was left under a tarp in his mangled car for 90 minutes, but before the medical examiner arrived, a pastor who happened by asked to pray over the dead man. The authorities present reluctantly gave him permission, and when the priest began singing a hymn he was shocked to hear the presumed corpse join in.

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Piper wound up spending months in the hospital recovering from his debilitating injuries, including the loss of a femur that resulted in a torturous looking device called a "Fixator" being attached to his leg. Despite the support of his loving wife Eve (Bosworth) and three children he went into a deep depression, refusing to fully cooperate in his care until he was given a tough love pep talk by a retired minister friend (Fred Thompson) and began a correspondence with a teenage girl who had suffered similar injuries.  

It's ultimately revealed that during the time he was assumed dead Piper was actually in heaven, experiencing a peacefulness and joy that made his subsequent painful rehabilitation all the more difficult to endure.

It's certainly a moving tale even for those who believe that Piper was more likely experiencing a hallucinatory state than an ascension to the pearly gates. Unfortunately, the film tells the story in the most prosaic fashion imaginable, missing nary a single faith-based film cliché with its one-dimensional noble characters, banal dialogue and requisite sermonizing. Every once in a while there's a disarming element, such as Dwight Yoakam's amusing turn as a smarmy lawyer or when the no-nonsense nurse who says to Piper, "Have you had a bowel movement today? Maybe that's why you're so grumpy." There's also Eve's emotional meltdown at a McDonald's drive-through, but hey, who hasn't been there?

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When the film finally gets around to its climactic depiction of Piper's heavenly sojourn, it includes hazy light effects and a group of people he refers to as a "Greeting Committee" made up of deceased friends and loved ones. They're all smiling beatifically, probably because they're lucky enough to be in the film instead of watching it.

The hymn "Amazing Grace" is heard over the end credits, which include recent footage of the real-life Piper delivering a sermon as well as photographs of the actual people and events involved.

There is one, um, saving grace. 90 Minutes in Heaven marks the debut film from a new production company dubbed Giving Films, which has announced that all of the profits from this and its subsequent releases will be going to charity. Now that's something that's truly inspirational.

Production: Giving Films, Emmett/Furla Films
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Kate Bosworth, Dwight Yoakam, Michael W. Smith, Fred Thompson
Director/screenwriter: Michael Polish
Producers: Rick Jackson, Randall Emmett, Dawn Olmstead, Michael Polish, George Furla
Executive producers: Wayne Marc Godfrey, Ted Fox, Trevor Drinkwater, Jason Netter
Director of photography: M. David Mullen
Production designer: Adam Henderson
Editor: Cary Gries
Costume designer: Lynette Meyer
Composer: Michael W. Smith
Casting: Dominika Posseren, Janelle Scuderi

Rated PG-13, 121 min.