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Eddie worked at Ruby Pier,
Fixing rides year after year,
But Eddie is no longer here;
It seems he died today.
‘Twas on his birthday that he died
From some malfunction in a ride.
A final sacrifice he tried
Has left him with dismay.
In that big theme park in the sky,
He learns that, when all humans die,
Five people from their lives supply
The answers that they sought.
He learns the histories of those
Who shine a light upon his woes,
Mistakes, heartaches that they expose,
And lessons they’ve been taught.
He feels his life did not transcend,
A failure to the very end,
Till they help Eddie comprehend
The truth of good and ill.
In heaven, Eddie is aghast,
But makes amends for what is past,
And sees that, to the very last,
His life had purpose still.

Here we go from Doctor Zhivago, one of the highest-grossing films ever made, to a Hallmark film that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. When I first saw this television movie, I had little idea how much it would touch me, and I soon read the same-titled novel for a school book report. Written by Mitch Albom (whose adapted work appeared previously on the list with Have a Little Faith), The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a “meet-‘em-and-move-on” film but in reverse, beginning with Eddie’s death and revealing his life story through flashbacks. The transitions are a bit sudden but deftly handled, often passing between timelines as if through doors. The three main periods differ primarily in their color palette: Eddie’s youthful past tends to have warm, full colors, while the present day before and after his passing is marked by gray bleakness.

The acting is of consistently higher quality than most television productions, particularly the Golden Globe-worthy lead performance by John Voight as Eddie. Playing different ages, he successfully navigates the full spectrum of emotions—despair, anger, confusion, grief, contentment—as his eyes are opened to how lives interconnect and sorrows become clear from a different perspective. Also excellent are Ellen Burstyn as the namesake of Ruby Pier, Michael Imperioli as his WWII army captain, and Jeff Daniels as a blue-skinned freak at the amusement park.

As that last credit would imply, there are some strange moments that border on surreal, and the scenes where Eddie moves on to his next person are somewhat confusing until they are explained. Still, the film doesn’t go overboard with bizarreness in its stabs at transcendence, like The Tree of Life or The Fountain. The Five People You Meet in Heaven remains grounded in human emotion and shouldn’t leave viewers scratching their heads by the end. On the contrary, the final scene exemplifies the power of the “meet ‘em and move on” genre, bringing every character to peace and fulfillment in a manner that, to my surprise, brought me and my VC both to tears upon this latest viewing, proving it can still happen.

As moving as it is, it’s a fantastical glimpse of what heaven could be like, such as What Dreams May Come, with little Christian or otherwise religious overtones. There’s some very brief talk of God but nothing on which to base one’s eschatological beliefs. In fact, I disagree with some points made, such as how those in heaven supposedly cannot view what happens on Earth, but there’s nothing anti-religious or morally objectionable.

For a television film, it’s a convoluted storyline but one that reveals the secrets of Eddie and his five people gradually with astutely depicted growth. Ruby Pier itself progresses from a prison to a heaven, at times a deathtrap, at others a place of ultimate fulfillment. Despite its religious liberties, I believe Mitch Albom was inspired when he wrote the book, as well as the screenplay. Full of wisdom and solace, The Five People You Meet in Heaven is my favorite television film, Hallmark or otherwise, one of the best and closest book adaptations, and a beautiful addition to the “meet-‘em-and-move-on” genre.

Best lines: (the Blue Man, to Eddie) “Strangers are family you have yet to come to know.”

(Marguerite, Eddie’s wife) “Life has to end, Eddie. Love doesn’t.”

Rank: 58 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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