The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape
Send this page to Twitter!  

THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


What If
Kevin Sorbo and Kristy Swanson have the best roles of their careers in What If.

About ten years ago, I interviewed some filmmakers who were attempting to start a new wave of Christian cinema, with the hope of producing pictures that would break out into the mainstream. There was some indication they might succeed, based on one or two titles that had managed to pull in some box office coin despite a lack of conventional advertising. It's taken longer than expected for Christian pictures to make the kind of impact some predicted, yet the recent success of faith films like Facing the Giants and, especially, Fireproof suggest that the time may finally be coming when Christian movies can compete at the box office with the latest Hollywood blockbusters. The key, as even those filmmakers admitted to me a decade ago, is to make movies that are good as opposed to just making movies with a message.

This brings us to What If, which is the closest anyone has come to fulfilling the promise of a Christian New Wave. While not a perfect film, it is nevertheless well made and effective, with surprisingly good performances anchoring it. The movie is working its way across the country, opening in strategic markets where faith films have successfully played in the past. If it comes to your town, be sure to take a look.

Kevin Sorbo stars as Ben Walker who, in the opening scene, abandons girlfriend Wendy (Kristy Swanson) and their plan to start a ministry. Instead, he hops a bus to chase a business opportunity in the big city. Years later, Ben has become a wheeler and dealer, making multi-million dollar deals, driving a fancy sports car, and planning to wed an obvious gold digger. His life is thrown for a loop when his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and a tow truck driver named Mike (John Ratzenberger) picks him up. Mike claims to be an angel sent to show Ben how his life would have been different had he followed the original plan. Suddenly, Ben finds himself in an alternate universe where he's married to Wendy, with whom he has two daughters, and working as a pastor in a small town church.

Ben, of course, gets nothing right: he alienates the congregation, perplexes his wife, and inadvertently hurts his daughters' feelings. He just wants to go back to his old life. Mike advises him that the only way out is in; that is to say, only when he embraces the situation will he have the opportunity to return, if indeed he still wants that. Mike gives it an honest attempt, gradually realizing that this alternative life may be better than his previous materialistic existence.

I know what you're probably thinking: "This sounds just like the plot of that Nicolas Cage movie, The Family Man!" Well, yeah. Originality of plot is not a highlight here. (For the record, The Family Man didn't have a wholly original plot either.) The concept of a man giving up a vacuous lifestyle in order to recommit to God and family is familiar, but the pleasure is as much in the journey as in the destination. What If has a good journey, filled with humor (yes, it's funny) and genuinely compelling family scenes. For example, the ill-equipped Ben doesn't know how to make his teen daughter's worrisome suitor go away, so he pays the kid to get lost, only to later have to deal with her humiliation.

What If is really made by the performances. Kevin Sorbo and Kristy Swanson have never been given roles this meaty before, and they rise to the occasion. Sorbo, in particular, delivers one of the most sincere performances of the year. If all you know of him is his work on "Hercules," be prepared to see a whole other side to his talents. Swanson, meanwhile, deftly handles some intense emotional moments as Ben's confused wife, who can't figure out why her husband has abruptly lost the very values that made her fall in love with him in the first place. As the wisecracking angel Mike, John Ratzenberger manages to be very funny without hamming it up. He gives the character a kind of quiet confidence that can only come from knowing that one's boss is the Lord.

Director Dallas Jenkins (son of "Left Behind" creator Jerry Jenkins) refrains from making the movie too melodramatic; a typical Tyler Perry film is more blunt than this is. There are certainly few, if any, surprising plot elements, save for the way the screenplay inadvertently condones Ben's use of insider trading to solve a crisis. Even without much new, I felt affection for the film growing as I watched. It pulled me in with its warmth and its performances.

What If is not shy about espousing its views on religion, yet I'd hate to see it compartmentalized. It's a good movie that just happens to have a strong religious point of view. I've seen quite a few pictures in the genre of faith films, and believe me - some of them are downright unwatchable, even if the message is admirable. This one is different. It proves that entertainment and a religious message are not mutually exclusive. More pictures like this one, and that New Wave of Christian cinema may finally become a reality.

( out of four)

What If is unrated but appropriate for all ages. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.