“I Can Only Imagine” takes its title from a best-selling Christian pop ballad, and tells the story of how composer Bart Millard came to create it.
An anthemic profession of faith, the Christian pop superstar Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) wants to know how Bart (Broadway’s J. Michael Finley) came up with it.
“You didn’t write this song in ten minutes,” she pooh-poos in an exaggerated Georgia drawl. “It took a lifetime.”
That’s the framing device for this sluggish story of an unhappy, abusive childhood and the two-fisted Texan Daddy (Dennis Quaid) who tried to teach his dreaming, artsy son “Dreams don’t pay the bills. They just keep you from knowin’ what’s real.”
It’s a drab, emotionally flat film, despite having Quaid play an embittered version of the ex-jock dad of “Friday Night Lights,” a jerk who takes out his frustrations in life out on the wife we see leave him, and the little boy (Brody Rose) who learns, very early on, to fight back.
“Life hits me,” the old man growls, “I hit it back.”
The promising cast includes National Treasure Cloris Leachman, as “MeMaw,” the granny who always supported little Bart and whose favorite expression became the name of his grown up band, Mercy Me.” And Madeline Carroll of “Flipped” plays the high school sweetheart Bart leaves behind when he discovers his talent and takes it on the road.
We track through Bart’s high school life, trying to stay out of the way of his violent father, trying to impress him by playing football, and failing at that, getting discovered by the high school choir teacher who casts him as Curly in “Oklahoma.”
Securing the rights to sing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” wasn’t cheap. The producers sprung for songs by U2 and ELO to show young Bart’s love for music at an early age. But they couldn’t talk the real Grant or Michael W. Smith into playing themselves, showing their role in discovering the tune. Either they want to forget that stage in their lives, or they read the limp screenplay.
The film’s leading man — in boy and adult form — sorely lacks the charisma to carry a movie. The kid’s amateurism shows. And Finley’s a doughy, inexpressive lump in the middle of this generic “band tours its way to fame” tale married to a Christian redemption narrative.
Because Dad changes. Cancer will do that to a body.
The only real laugh in it — Finley playing a drunk scene is a real career-killer — comes that first time he takes the screen, as a guy plainly too old to be a bearded high school tight end. “You look like you’re 30,” a character cracks. As indeed he does. Not like a footballer, either.
The producing-directing Erwin Brothers of Alabam made a faith-based football movie (“Woodlawn”) and the comic miscarriage “Moms’ Night Out” and “October Baby.” Unlike a lot of faith-based filmmakers, they have little trouble attracting big names to flesh out their supporting casts. No Kurt Cameron. Country star Trace Adkins, the best thing in “Moms’ Night Out,” plays the band’s manager here.
But their filmmaking has no spark, no flair. Lifeless scene follows flat “travel” filler, with nothing light or urgent about any of it. This story, pointlessly delaying the moment when we finally hear the tune, didn’t offer them many possibilities to demonstrate that they know how to tug emotions, either.
If the song is strong enough, show it/let us hear it more than once. Ask Tom Hanks (“That Thing You Do”) about that. This one? Not exactly a spine-tingler, a tad uninspiring, as performed here.
And that goes for the movie, its lip-syncing (?) star and the rather winded “inspirational” story it tells.
MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements including some violence
Cast: J. Michael Finley, Dennis Quaid, Cloris Leachman, Brody Rose, Madeline Carroll
Running time: 1:50