A Pretty Wonderful Film
One of the favorite motifs of “faith films” in recent years is the “Wonderful Life” model. Through some measure of divine intervention, a person is granted the opportunity to see how different life would be—for the better or for the worse—given a change in heart or direction. Just in the last year or two, I’ve reviewed several films that are variations on this theme: Sarah’s Choice, in which a young woman is allowed to rethink pregnancy options; In the Blink of an Eye, in which a man is given a Groundhog Day-style chance to figure out how not to get “left behind”; Midnight Reckoning, which employs a déjà-vu twist to give a would-be drug runner another lease on life; A Christmas Snow, in which a bitter woman is allowed to mystically reconnect with her father; and, most recently, Pure Country 2 and Mrs. Miracle—both of which were most bitter pills to swallow in this regard. For the most part, I’m a sucker for the gimmick, but when you get the angel angle wrong, well, you’ve blown the whole premise.
Hooray! Here, Executive Producer Jerry Jenkins, director/son Dallas Jenkins and Pureflix have done this variation of the story about as well as it’s been done since It’s A Wonderful Life. Anchoring the whole affair is John Ratzenberger as Mike, a supernatural tow truck driver who’s good with hooks… and guidance from above. He’s not doing Cliff Clavin here, but he’s not doing Mrs. Merkle, either. In fact, this may be the most appealing Ratzenberger has ever been on film, and that’s going back a long ways now.
Opposite Mike—as his project, a la Clarence vs. George Bailey—is Kevin Sorbo as Ben Walker, a successful business exec who ditched his girlfriend (and ministry aspirations) fifteen years ago for high life in the big city. On the eve of his biggest success yet—and an ill-advised marriage to his gold-digging gal—Ben is given the chance to see what might have been had he stayed behind with Wendy.
Courtesy of a mysteriously broken-down luxury vehicle… and Mike… Ben finds himself fifteen years down a different road: married to Wendy, pastor of his tiny hometown church, father to a teenaged girl… and poor as dirt. It isn’t that the other Ben never existed—but this is definitely fish-out-of-water-territory that we’ve paddled through many times before.
I’ve got to mention that I really didn’t expect to like this film. Pureflix has definitely improved its offerings the last couple of years, but I still don’t like folks messing with the Wonderful Life scenario—and in the early going, I really didn’t think that Sorbo was going to pull this off. His Big City Ben was so shallow and unlikable that I couldn’t envision a reformed Small Town Ben to be much more than a smarmy puppet. But I was wrong—though, of course, Sorbo is no Jimmy Stewart, and I’m sure he doesn’t pretend to be. By the end, I thoroughly enjoyed what he’d done with Ben, mostly because Jenkins gives us a final payoff that adds a decidedly new twist to the genre in an Abraham-and-Isaac sort of fashion. It totally makes up for whatever shortcomings preceded it, and adds a deeper poignancy to what otherwise might still have felt like B-grade retreads.
This is not a perfect film by any means. The geography, though admittedly mystical, is still preposterous, and some of the plotting is rather perfunctory. But kudos once again to Pureflix for being big enough to admit that they need to learn some things—and then following through with improvement. It’s a good sign of Christlike humility, and a huge step in the right direction—their best effort to date.
What If… is rated PG for “some mild thematic elements.” That’s just about right. Which is not so say that this is a “family film.” Teenagers might enjoy it a bit, but this one is pretty much strictly designed for adults who have lost their way.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of What If…