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The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Year: 2004
Studio: ABC TV
Director: Lloyd Kramer
Writer: Mitch Albom
Cast: Jon Voight, Jeff Daniels, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Imperoli

I sought this two part TV miniseries out after reading and enjoying the book, and it didn't take very long to see the aesthetic was a bit too gilded and televisual to really stand out amongst other filmed entertainment.

But in this case it's all about the story and not the visuals, and it sticks closely enough to the book so that if you enjoyed that you'll find it easy to look past the heartstring-tugging, midday movie feel and enjoy it. In this case it was probably a good thing the writer of the novel (Mitch Albom) wrote the teleplay too.

In fact it was at two points – where hero Eddie (Jon Voight) finds himself having to tell his wife how much he misses her and say goodbye, and again when he meets the little Asian girl who's so pivotal to his life – I found myself blubbering like a baby.

I think it was a bit more to do with the film fulfilling and breathing life into the saddest and most tender parts of the book than gifted filmmaking – director Lloyd Kramer has only worked on one other project I know, Lindsay Lohan's attempted return to credibility with Liz & Dick.

But where a lot of viewers (maybe me too, depending on my mood at the time) would find it manipulative and schmaltzy, I found the original novel a beautiful enough idea that I let the miniseries carry me away.

As Eddie learns when he dies (not a spoiler, it's the inciting incident) in a ride accident on the amusement park pier where he's worked all his life, getting to heaven means meeting and learning a lesson from five people who had an impact on your life or whose lives you impacted. Rather than the usual family and friends Eddie expects, he has no idea who they'll be – in some cases they're people he's never even met.

Aside from his wife and the captain he served under during the Second World War, he meets a woman named Ruby (Ellen Burstyn) who gave the amusement park its name and takes him to a diner in the middle of a snowy forest filled with people sporting various deformities and injuries, a man with blue skin (Jeff Daniels) who used to be a resident sideshow freak at the pier when Eddie was a boy but whom he hardly remembers, and a young Asian girl he's never set eyes on before but who's story I defy anyone not to cry at.

The five people Eddie has to meet all have something to teach or show him, all having waited in their respective heavens for him to arrive after their own deaths. When they do so, they can move on, and after their messages are delivered it'll be Eddie's turn.

The settings and locations and what they all mean to the plot are inventive and original, but again it's all thanks to the source material – all the work was kind of done for the director, who only had to cast the story and point a camera at it.

But like the book, the script has a satisfying narrative quality where everything fits perfectly and means something down the line. The essential message (every life is connected, we might not find out about the extent of those connections until after life is over and how happy, fulfilled or miserable we are in our own lives often has no bearing on how we touch other lives) is nice, but the execution of it is kind of magical.

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