When he goes to heaven, Judge David Packard wants to meet Marilyn Monroe, Pier Angeli, Katharine Hepburn, Helmut Newton, and Andy Warhol.
"This is the story about a man named Eddie, and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun."—The Narrator
I'm usually wary of books turned into film. More often than not, too much is added, dropped, or changed as the novel makes its transformation to the screen, and the end result is inevitably disappointing. However, I was in a unique position to review The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the made-for-television film based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Mitch Albom: I hadn't read the book! It was for this very reason that I almost chose not to review this DVD, because I wouldn't be able to make comparisons to the original novel—something that the book's fans reading this review surely would appreciate. Yet I've had a lifelong fascination with the subject matter—what, if anything, lies beyond death?—and given that Albom wrote the teleplay (and nabbed an executive producer credit as well), I decided to give this one a shot, hoping that those who'd read the novel would forgive me.
The choice was wise. The Five People You Meet in Heaven weaves a heartfelt story with a superb cast, great cinematography, and confident directing into a solid film that, despite being made for television, feels like something much bigger than the small screen for which it was produced.
Facts of the Case
Eddie (Jon Voight, in a thick coat of liver-spotted makeup) is the kindly-yet-troubled elderly maintenance man at Ruby Pier, a Coney Island-like amusement park. Cane in hand, he slowly shuffles around the park, fixing the occasional broken ride, making pipe-cleaner animals for the children, and keeping general order of the place. We've barely come to know this enigmatic man when tragedy strikes: Eddie is killed when he attempts to save a young girl from a plummeting ride that has malfunctioned.
Eddie wakes to find himself still at Ruby Pier, but alone and free of any physical pain or limitations. After a bit of indulging in his new physical freedoms (think Wilford Brimley and friends in Cocoon, minus the breakdancing), Eddie meets one of Ruby Pier's sideshow freaks—the Blue Man (Jeff Daniels). It is through him that Eddie learns of his fate and that the Blue Man is but the first of five people Eddie will meet in the afterlife. The five people, each of whom has been a part of Eddie's life in some way even if for the briefest of moments, have something to teach Eddie about his life. It is through this journey that we learn more about Eddie's life—his tough childhood, his love, his harrowing experience as a soldier in the war. Ultimately, though, it's Eddie who must confront his belief that his life has been inconsequential.
Let's start with the most basic piece of evidence ("Exhibit A," if you will): this is simply a wonderful story. Of course, any story dealing with what lies beyond death is free to come up with any conventions it wishes, and Albom manages to bring some welcome originality to this aspect of the tale. Sure, there are echoes of Dickens' A Christmas Carol as each person Eddie meets frequently shows him past moments in his life, but Albom creates interesting twists of his own. Eddie visits each person in their heaven, not his own. It is interesting to see what each character has chosen for their heaven, and learn why, but it makes us wonder what Eddie's heaven will be like. The people that Eddie meets aren't necessarily obvious, either, and I often found myself eager to see who Eddie would be meeting next.
As the story unfolds, we learn more about Eddie through frequent flashbacks. We begin to understand the sadness in the face of the old man that we see in the beginning of the film. Some of Eddie's demons are scars buried deep within, while others are more immediate, more painful: Eddie is obsessed with knowing the fate of the little girl he tried to save from the plunging ride. He's also disturbed by what may or may not have happened during one horrible night in the Philippines during the war.
The fifth person Eddie meets reveals a major plot point, and I literally gasped at the revelation. It's also one of the most beautiful scenes in the film; Voight's interaction with the fifth person is sweet and poignant, and I will freely admit that I watched this scene through misty eyes. It's a baptism both symbolic and literal for Eddie, and it is only after a visit with this fifth person that we know Eddie can finally be at peace with himself and the life that he has questioned for so long.
Voight and the entire cast deserve kudos for a spectacular job at bringing Albom's story to life. Other than Voight, I was most impressed by Steven Grayhm (White Chicks), who played Eddie as a young man. He's got a large chunk of screen time, and Grayhm's performance adds credibility to elderly Eddie's feelings about the life he's endured. Grayhm, who reminded me of Matt Damon on more than one occasion, shows us the irony of a family centered on fixing things, yet he cannot fix the one thing broken more than anything else—his relationship with his abusive, estranged father. He's also crucial in showing us the first meeting and eventual love between Eddie and Marguerite (Dagmara Dominczyk, Kinsey) as well as the horrors he endured in the war-torn Philippines. There's no denying that Voight, despite all that makeup, is wonderful as the older Eddie, but his role is buoyed by Grayhm's performance as his younger self. Daniels (albeit in a role so brief you might call it an extended cameo), Dominczyk, and Michael Imperioli (as Eddie's army captain) are solid as well.
Watching the film, I realized that it didn't look like a made-for-television movie. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue) captures the essence of Ruby Pier with shots full of color and motion. It's difficult to believe that, among the boardwalk games and the rides and the children enjoying ice cream, this will be a place of tragedy. And the portrayal of Eddie's death is of particular note: We already know that Eddie, in his old age, is not a man of speed, but the shot of the plummeting Thunder Drop ride is sped up anyway. It's a tense and hopeless scene, as we know that Eddie is in an impossible situation and is not going to make it. The reaction shots of those witness to the accident, which is also used in the opening credits, is reminiscent of the reactions of those to the events of September 11, 2001—eyes wide, hands over open mouths, no cries or screams but shocked silence—and it brings an incredible sense of realism to the scene. Morgenthau's excellent cinematography is consistent throughout the film, from the war in the Philippines and the terrible conditions at a Japanese prisoner of war camp to beautiful outdoor vistas.
All of this is tied together by Lloyd Kramer's (Report from Ground Zero) sharp direction. I would imagine there would be some considerable nerves involved with directing the movie version of a best-selling novel, but in the end, I got the feeling that this film was directed with nothing but confidence. Granted, Kramer was able to work from Albom's teleplay, but I feel as though Kramer had a firm grasp on what made Albom's story work. Nothing feels forced or out of place; it's as if Kramer sat back and let the story unfurl at its natural pace. The result is a made-for-television film that outshines many of its big-screen siblings.
Despite the big-screen feel, the film is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio. The video is excellent, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is impressive as well. While it won't make your subwoofer break a sweat, there are plenty of slick directional effects—especially during combat scenes—throughout.
The following special features are included on the disc:
• Commentary with writer Mitch Albom, director Lloyd Kramer, and
Jon Voight (Eddie)
• Interviews with the Cast and Crew
• "Make Up Magic with Jon Voight"
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's tough to find a credible rebuttal witness when there's very little to dislike with the film, but I did find one bone to pick: The narration can be obvious and unnecessary. Let me state that the narration here is mostly appropriate; I didn't feel like it was overly excessive or over the top. But take, for example, the following scene: We see a platoon of soldiers trudging through the jungle, rifles at the ready. Rather than let the scene play as we see it, the narrator pipes in with the following:
War changes men. It fills them with fear, with courage, with a sense of adventure. Eddie had wanted to see a world beyond Ruby Pier. And for a while, he did.
Perhaps such narration is prose taken directly from the novel, but it still sounds clichéd and hokey. I'd venture to bet most folks—even those fortunate enough to have been spared a personal experience of war—figured as much. The scene could have played fine without the unnecessary voiceover.
Those who have read the book and watched the film may have issues with any deviations from the original novel. That's understandable, and I wish I'd read the book prior to the film so I could have identified and discussed any such changes in this review. Ultimately, though, what I'm reviewing is the DVD and not the book, and if the movie is any indication of the novel's quality, I can only surmise that it's one hell of a read.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a simple story, yet full of genuine heart and emotion. Put simply, it was a joy experiencing this film. Highly recommended.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven is guilty only of motivating me to read the novel upon which it's based. Otherwise, the court finds this release not guilty and free to pass into the light. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with writer Mitch Albom, director Lloyd Kramer, and Jon Voight (Eddie)
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