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’90 Minutes in Heaven’ Review: Hayden Christensen Visits Angels, Audience Goes to Purgatory

A preacher’s tale of his clinical death and experience of the afterlife isn’t the worst, but with faith-based films, it’s all relative

In 1989, a preacher named Don Piper was involved in a car accident and declared clinically dead for 90 minutes. During that time, Don experienced heaven.

The end? You wish.

“90 Minutes in Heaven,” a film directed and adapted by Michael Polish from Piper’s memoir, gives about 10 minutes to the death/eternity part and dedicates the rest to Don (Hayden Christensen, in a terrible down-home accent) bitching and literally moaning. (Perhaps the ‘stache makes him mumble.) Don’s wife, Eva, is played by Polish’s wife, Kate Bosworth, proving just how far the once-mighty (or almost-mighty) have fallen.

To be fair, though, “90 Minutes” is one of the better faith-based films out there. The opening is tense as Don drives through heavy rain, listening to a song on the radio whose chorus is “Praise the Lord” as he glances at a manuscript titled “I Believe in a Great God” to hammer home a point. You know the accident is coming, however, and you brace for it, and it’s as terrific as you fear. Polish renders the crash a bit goofy when he freezes a frame of Don, with a twisted mouth more likely seen on a comedian, flying out of his seat. But the director, for no obvious reason, tries again just 11 minutes later, re-creating a scene that viewers are unlikely to have forgotten.

Another minister, among the drivers stopped because of the accident, approaches a sheriff and says he’d like to pray for the victim. (Meanwhile, a somewhat comically surly EMT says, “We know our business. We know he’s dead.”) He prays over Don’s body, and soon Don is…singing, even though his body’s mangled. A miracle indeed.

“90 Minutes” isn’t much more far-fetched than the endless number of white-light stories that have been shared ’round the world, including last year’s “Heaven Is for Real” and Clint Eastwood‘s 2010 “Hereafter.” (Although the light is more golden than white here, perhaps appropriate considering the film seems to be sponsored by McDonald’s, complete with two trips to the drive-thru.) But even if you watch this with your mind barely open, the premise isn’t what sinks the film.

Its two-hour running time, for instance, is a killer. Turns out people can get really irritable after seeing heaven, and Christensen manages to be his usual annoying self even while acting barely alive on a hospital bed, groaning the weirdest groans you’ve ever heard. His character is a bit of a brat, too, actually pouting about being alive and at one point giving the silent treatment to hospital staff as well as his family. The sometimes-awful script may lighten your frustration, with Eva saying things both ridiculous (“What happened to you?”) and less than grammatical (“You can take away your pain with that button, but you are causing it to everyone else”).

90 Minutes_YoakamBosworth, in her fourth film directed by Polish, isn’t quite as flat as she was in, say, “Superman Returns.” But she still has some “oof” moments, such as when she says, “I’m so afraid” as casually as if she were saying, “I’m craving a Quarter Pounder.” Maybe that’s why Don, as Eva watches fireworks from his hospital room, remarks in voiceover, “Those were the only fireworks left in our marriage.” (I’m thinking there was a giant, near-death-size reason for that, but maybe some couples still have sparks when one is bedridden and bloodied for months.)

Dwight Yoakam has a terribly embarrassing role as Cecil Beaumont, a ambulance-chaser who shills his legal services on billboards, laden with lines such as “I’m your Beau!” and telling a joke to Eva to help explain a horrible setback. Some preview pieces have labeled it a comic turn; I’m labeling it something Yoakam should scratch off his resume.

The soundtrack is unsurprisingly heavy on strings, which alternate between melancholy, melodramatic and hopeful. The script, meanwhile, is heavy on prayer. That minister prayed Don back to life; Eva and their three kids fold their hands every chance they get; another preacher allegedly rallies churches “all over the world” to pray for Don’s recovery, as if the rest of the world didn’t have bigger problems to worry about in 1989.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t tell how much artistic liberty Polish took with the material. Eva’s side was reportedly incorporated into the storyline, specifically her frustration dealing with a husband who remained emotionally unresponsive even after his physical unresponsiveness abated.

Of course, there’s an uplifting ending. And with Elvis’ gorgeous “Amazing Grace” playing as the credits roll, even nonbelievers might get some goosebumps. How ironic that in a film about faith and heaven, your spirits are most dramatically raised by a sinner of a pop singer whom many religious people likely believe wound up going to hell.