Directed as a labor of love by veteran producer Stephen Simon, and based on books that were on the New York Times bestseller list for years, “Conversations With God” dramatizes author Neale Donald Walsch’s journey from homelessness and despair, to God, celebrity and beyond. Belying its nonsectarian message, pic often feels less New Age than New Testament, with bearded Henry Czerny looking suspiciously Christ-like in the film’s many overemphatic close-ups. Though more polished and better acted than many “inspirational” biopics, film (which opened nationwide Oct. 27) seems unlikely to reach far beyond Walsch’s dedicated readership — which, however, numbers in the millions.
Script picks up as Walsch (Czerny) crashes his car, breaking his neck. He just lost his job and, having let his insurance policy lapse, soon loses his apartment. Over 50 and in a neck brace, employment proves elusive.
Before long, he is destitute, camping out beside a picturesque lake in Oregon, subsisting on recycling cans and hanging out with the homeless. He finds work as a deejay for a short time but is let go again when the radio station is sold. In a funk, he scribbles an angry letter to God and is answered at great length by a disembodied voice very like his own.
Thanks in large part to pro thesping of Czerny (perhaps best remembered as the pedophilic priest in “The Boys of Saint Vincent”), ably supported by a competent cast, the story of Walsch’s travails never strains credulity, though helmer Simon’s predilection for spiritual vistas with light breaking through clouds, arrested close-ups and endless long dissolves often skirts kitsch.
On the other hand, Simon (producer of “What Dreams May Come”) cannily uses flashbacks to make sections of Walsch’s life come full circle, so that the viewer can return to an earlier scene with a new understanding of where that moment fits into a continuum, thus embedding a series of revelatory epiphanies into the very structure of the film.
Eric Delabarre’s script carefully avoids some of the more controversial aspects of Walsch’s writings, focusing instead on his rejection of a religion-specific, judgmental God in favor of a loving principle of laissez-faire. This laissez-faire, however, fails to fully encompass alternate points of view.
Walsch is shown after the publication of his first book in a sea of adulation where any skepticism or criticism functions solely as an occasion for Walsch to reach new heights. Thus a lone moralistic heckler allows Walsch to fine-tune his easy-going, ruefully self-deprecating humor, to the delight of the crowd. When a despairing, bereft young mother questions the existence of God, Walsch comes up with a masterpiece of extemporaneous sophistry to explain her son’s untimely death.
Tech credits are of a piece with pic’s low-budget modesty.