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Grace Abounds
What If Is Not Great but Enjoyable
by Scott Nehring, Contributing Writer

What If PosterSynopsis
In WHAT IF..., Ben Walker (Kevin Sorbo) walks away from his missionary work and his girlfriend Wendy (Kristy Swanson) to pursue an "earthly" career.  Fifteen years later he is successful, wealthy and on the verge of a huge business deal.

Ben is visited by Mike the Angel (John Ratzenberger) who sends Ben into an alternate reality, one where he followed God's calling (being a small town preacher) instead of pursuing materialistic goals.

Golly, which path will Ben choose?

Check It Off
This is a bona fide Christian film. Let's go down the checklist:

  • A derivative plot based on a well-known secular hit movie (THE FAMILY MAN) or classic film (IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) - check
  • Central white characters of pleasant disposition - check
  • Friendly minority (usually African) supporting character - check
  • A snotty teenage girl who is impulsively embarrassed by her parents - check
  • A dope of a hero who has fallen/is falling away from grace - check
  • A troubled marriage/relationship where the man is to blame - check
  • A blameless, patient and good looking ("pretty" good looking, not "hot") wife/girlfriend who has theology all figured out and is waiting for the dope of a hero to get his stuff together - check
  • The helpful and slightly humorous religious figure who leads the dope of a hero down the right path - check
  • Obtuse references to Jesus - check
  • A forced conversion scene where the dope of a hero breaks down and finally gives himself to Christ - check

All that is missing is the bald cancer-ridden twelve-year-old with a special insight into the Christian faith.

Typical Christian Film?
I have not made it a secret that I think Christian films often stink on ice. They propose to represent my faith to the public and usually do so with poorly executed, cheese ball movies that speak to the least discerning audiences available.

Director Dallas Jenkins knows that Christian film is a troubled genre.  He has written about the state of Christian film over at Big Hollywood.  When I saw that he was at the helm of this production, I was confused. Given that this is a straight-up Christian film with all the trimmings, it seemed to be an odd project for him to tackle.  Moreover, this is a derivative film, there is no denying that. The premise is a rip off of The Family Man through and through, but with a Christian twist. Given his awareness of the problems facing Christian film it would seem more logical for him to work on riskier, more adventurous productions.  

Approachable Movie for a Broad Base
Jenkins delivers a comfy, conventional film.  This may sound like a slam but I do not necessarily intend it to be taken that way.  He works within the confines of the genre and while he hasn't pushed the envelope, he has created an approachable movie that will reach a broad base. Despite it having many of the traditional flawed aspects of a Christian film (see above), I still recommend this movie. There is a light personality to the film and I found it rather enjoyable mostly thanks to the engaging performances Jenkins pulls from his actors.

The film succeeds mostly based on Sorbo's performance. He reminds the audience of his charm, which sustained Hercules: The Legendary Journeys over the years.  He also shows his ability to sell a scene and in this film he is forced to do a good deal of selling.  There are plenty of hokey moments, including a heavy-handed conversion scene.  In addition, he has the difficult task of making people care while they are watching a plot they know all too well. This is a hard spot for an actor to work from and he pulls it off.

An Easily Enjoyable Film
Unfortunately, as is the case with most Christian films, Sorbo and the other actors have to manage simplistic dialog and inorganic character arcs. This is the case because the genre calls for specific hallmarks (see above).  When the point of a work is to preach about a topic instead of discussing it with the audience, the forced nature of the delivery cuts into the natural flow of storytelling.  This weakness is seen in the script and the film as a whole when the Christian film conventions are delivered.  The traditional conversion scene at the end is a good example.  The whole narrative comes to a screeching halt as Ben finally breaks down in a tearful submission to God.  This isn't a bad thing on its face, but the scene is disconnected from the rest of the film and comes across as too deliberate.

I will not say this is a great film, rather this is an easily enjoyable one.  Those attracted to conventional Christian films are strongly advised to give this movie a chance.  I think you will be satisfied.  If a non-Christian finds themselves in front of this film they probably won't make it through to the end.  The faith elements will probably be too much for them, unless they are very patient and forgiving.

Ultimately, this a well-done Christian film but it doesn't advance the genre, it simply holds to its conventions. It is my hope that Jenkins and the other Christian filmmakers of his generation will expand beyond the accepted rules of the genre and begin to innovate and move us to the next level.

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"Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before God made anything at all and is supreme over all creation. Christ is the one through whom God created everything in heaven and earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can't see-kings, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities. Everything has been created through him and for him. He existed before everything else began, and he holds all creation together."
- Colossians 1:15-17

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