Obviously sincere but unremarkably bland, “Deep in the Heart” provides only a modest amount of uplift while recounting the true-life story of Richard Wallrath, a Texas businessman and philanthropist who managed to quit drinking and turn his life around only after losing his job and family, and plumbing the lower depths of rock bottom. Inspirational indie opened Feb. 17 in regional release, but probably won’t begin to find an appreciative aud of any size until it reaches cable and homevid. Pic also might enjoy extended afterlife through noncommercial screenings by churches and 12-step groups.
First half-hour or so of the leisurely paced narrative establishes Wallrath (Jon Gries) as an irresponsible alcoholic whose boozing often fuels violent rages, much to the misfortune of his spouse, his children and, in at least one instance, a total stranger. (A prologue suggests childhood abuse as a partial explanation for Wallrath’s adult misbehavior.)
After his fed-up wife and kids finally depart, Wallrath considers suicide. Instead, he is encouraged to enter a recovery program by a soft-spoken and brightly backlit stranger (Val Kilmer) who’s identified in the credits as “The Bearded Man,” but may actually be Jesus Christ. Or, at the very least, his stunt double.
Once on the road to recovery, Wallrath never backslides, despite an occasional detour into tragedy. He woos and marries Patsy (Elaine Hendrix), an attractive (and notably younger) member of his 12-step group, rises from employee to owner-operator at a window manufacturing and installation company, becomes a generous donor to high school programs, and even patches things up with most of his own children.
Indeed, when bad things do occur — Patsy fleetingly returns to drug use, adult son Michael (D.B. Sweeney) suffers a financial setback, etc. — the events usually are announced rather than dramatized, as though director Christopher Cain (“Young Guns,” “Pure Country”) and scripters Brian A. Hoffman and Josh Fasulo were rotely checking off items on a list of highlights from Wallrath’s life story.
Even a subplot involving a lost battle with cancer and Wallrath’s subsequent crisis of faith feels rushed and underdeveloped. On the other hand, the pic does allow Kilmer — whose hirsute stranger reappears periodically — another chance to demonstrate his ability to bring credibility and conviction to a cameo role that might have seemed silly, or worse, if played a lesser thesp.
Gries is persuasive in his portrayal of Wallrath as a blunt-spoken born-again fellow who takes full advantage of his shot at redemption but remains a tough customer when he needs to. When a contractor threatens to declare bankruptcy after ordering windows, Wallrath drives to the construction site and personally smashes the unpaid-for merchandise.
Supporting perfs are adequate. For some viewers, the only real standout will be Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who cameos as himself at a fund-raising event where Wallrath is honored for his generosity. And to answer the inevitable question: Yes, Perry does remember all of his (few) lines.
Production designer Rodney Becker does a good job of subtly conveying the look and feel of various decades — from the late 1930s to today. Singer-composer Larry Gatlin’s title song, performed under the closing credits, should get respectable airplay on country and religious music radio stations.