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The Other Side Of Heaven


The Other Side Of Heaven

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Movies don't get much more wholesome and earnest than The Other Side Of Heaven, a handsomely mounted but empty-headed drama that attempts to do for fresh-faced Mormon missionaries what Top Gun did for cocky fighter pilots. Adapted from the memoirs of John H. Groberg, whose story seems designed to single-handedly refute the maxim that nobody's perfect, Heaven documents the super-missionary's Eisenhower-era adventures saving souls and taking names. Heaven begins at Brigham Young University, where Groberg (Christopher Gorham) must bid his best gal (Anne Hathaway) goodbye before heading off to the Tongan Islands. The film's first few moments include a burst of nostalgic sentimentality and Norman Rockwell-style Americana, but its perversely anachronistic worldview doesn't become fully apparent until it reaches the Tongan Islands. At first, Gorham has a tiny bit of difficulty, due to his inability to speak the local language and the opposition of a hostile rival minister, but after an intense studying-with-a-Bible montage sequence, Gorham is transformed into a lean, squeaky-clean, soul-saving machine. With the help of his adoring native sidekick, Gorham sets about turning the Tongan people into non-smoking, non-drinking, tie-wearing, English-speaking Mormons. He succeeds with almost comic ease. Without bothering with newfangled moral or cultural relativism, The Other Side Of Heaven takes it as a given that accepting Christianity and becoming Westernized is an inherent good that benefits everyone; accordingly, it doesn't feature a single character who feels otherwise. A Christ-like do-gooder whose faith never wavers for a millisecond, Gorham is clearly intended to serve as an inspirational figure to faith-minded youngsters. But he's such a wildly implausible caricature of moral perfection—Heaven is basically Ned Flanders: The Missionary Years—that his faith and devotion have nowhere near the power that they would if he were a more complicated, conflicted, or human figure. The Tongan people all but worship Gorham and his Western ways, and by the end of the film, they seem prepared to move to Utah, vote for Ike, and bake apple pies and stitch American flags in their spare time. A postcard-pretty Sunday-school lecture in film form, Heaven preaches gingerly to the converted, but even the faithful are likely to see through its black-and-white moral universe.