"The Other Side of Heaven" boasts tidal waves and typhoons, wretched deaths and inspiring resurrections, hideous tropical maladies and bizarre down-home cures. It has exotic backdrops fit for Bloody Mary: swaying palms, cozy grass huts and epic moons.
And boy, oh boy, it's a howler, a textbook example of how the tagline "based on a true story" can be a come-on for the most artificial artistic impulses.
The directing debut of Brigham Young University grad Mitch Davis, "The Other Side of Heaven" is an unabashed Mormon propaganda piece disguised as an adventure film. The film recounts the spiritual initiation of John Groberg (Christopher Gorham), an Idaho native who leaves behind an adoring girlfriend (Anne Hathaway) and his beloved alma mater in the 1950s to cut his teeth as a missionary in the South Seas kingdom of Tonga.
The young Groberg (who today serves as an elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) instantly captivates the natives with his congenial air, his abiding faith and his funny-adorable bag of malapropisms.
Facing down a never-ending litany of challenges with only a Bible and his seat-of-the-pants gumption, Groberg faith-heals an ostensibly deceased young native boy back to life and steers hard-drinking island rowdies from the ways of Satan.
The apex of thrillingly awful moments occurs when Groberg presides over the lagoon-water baptism of a Tongan teenage girl, saving her soul in the nick of time while just offshore, a bevy of misguided island lasses is deflowered by a boatload of rum-running seamen.
"The Other Side of Heaven" is the most unambiguous in a recent spate of broad-market films about the other love that dare not speak its name in Hollywood, the worship of God. Not since English missionary Ingrid Bergman saved the Chinese from their basest instincts in "Inn of the Sixth Happiness" can we recall such a narcissistic screen spectacle of white Christian chauvinism versus the dark-skinned heathen.
Only more grotesque than the film's clueless air of self-congratulation is the screenplay's square-as-"Father Knows Best" sense of humor, which the director has ostensibly incorporated from Groberg's memoirs. The whole trippy experience is like being held at gunpoint by a Jehovah's Witness at the front door while George Gobel holds forth in the living room on Nickelodeon.
MPAA rating: PG, for thematic elements and brief disturbing images
Jan Stuart writes about film for Newsday, a Tribune company.
'The Other Side of Heaven'
Christopher Gorham...John Groberg
Anne Hathaway...Jean Sabin
3Mark Entertainment presents a Molen Garbett production, released by Excel Entertainment Group. Writer-director Mitch Davis. Producers Gerald R. Molen, John Garbett. Executive producers Mitch Davis. Cinematographer Brian Breheny. Editor Steven Ramirez. Production designer Ric Kofoed. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
In general release.