REVIEW: A Little Bit of Heaven, a Whole Lotta Torture
The old-fashioned cancer weeper — a genre that includes pictures like Love Story, Brian’s Song, and the gold standard of chemocathartic melodrama, Terms of Endearment — has been in short supply these days, maybe because nakedly manipulative tearjerking is a hard sell with modern audiences. Jonathan Levine tried to freshen the genre with last year’s 50/50 and pulled it off with reasonably effective results, thanks largely to the unassuming charisma of his star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt: You don’t want to see anyone get cancer, but you particularly don’t want to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt get cancer. You may not want to see Kate Hudson get cancer, either, as her character does in A Little Bit of Heaven. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to like her. The tiniest bit of Hudson’s wrinkly-crinkly cuteness goes a long way, and in A Little Bit of Heaven, watching her waste away becomes slow torture. She’s like an adorbs Camille.
Actually, watching Hudson’s Marley — a youngish ad exec whose career is soaring even as her white-blood-cell count is shrinking — wrestle with the specter of death isn’t as nearly as bad as watching her live. And no matter how wearisome Hudson may be, the sparkly dreariness of A Little Bit of Heaven isn’t completely her fault: The script (by Gren Wells) lets everyone down, and director Nicole Kassell (The Woodsman) doesn’t keep the action, such as it is, moving briskly enough. The picture has everything — too much of everything. There’s a slow-burning doctor-patient romance, a shopping montage in which Marley spends down her life-insurance money by showering her loved ones with gifts, even an appearance by Whoopi Goldberg, clad in a Grecian gown, as God. You couldn't ask for more, and you probably shouldn't.
As the picture opens, Marley rushes out of her criminally cute New Orleans apartment to dash off to her job — late again! — on her charmingly rusty vintage bicycle. She arrives at work just in time to give a killer presentation that lands her company a big new client, a condom manufacturer. Because Marley sure knows her way around a condom: You see, she loves having sex, but she resists getting serious — later, we’ll learn that there’s a boring, garden-variety reason for her reticence, because the movie wants to have it both ways. We can’t just have a woman character who loves being in the sack; there has to be a Serious Explanation for her inability to commit. That’s just one of the ways in which the movie bows to conventional morality, and it’s a real downer.
Marley seems sunny and full of life at first, but suddenly she starts looking a little peaked — her co-worker, Sarah (the always-appealing Lucy Punch), can’t help noticing it. Marley goes in for a checkup only to turn all giggly at the sight of her hunky doctor, Julian Goldstein (Gael García Bernal, who looks as if he’d like to squirm out of the movie). She can’t help making a silly-flirty wisecrack about his name; he replies, with a completely straight face, that he’s Jewish and from Mexico, but the gag would have been so much lovelier if it had been left unexplained.
As it turns out, Marley is very, very ill, and the rest of the movie — which is most of it — outlines the various ways in which she deals with her illness, which include denial, cheerfulness in the face of adversity, outright bitchiness and, ultimately, quiet acceptance. All of those stages are completely believable, but watching Hudson go through them is its own kind of Hell. I hesitate to jump on the Hudson hate wagon: Even though she’s made a name for herself in dreadful bridey-widey comedies like Something Borrowed and Bride Wars, she’s done fine work in other types of pictures, particularly Iain Softley’s superspooky chiller The Skeleton Key (also, incidentally, set in New Orleans).
But in A Little Bit of Heaven, Hudson pushes the “Just Die Already” meter straight into the red. She has a way of cocking her head just a little, like a winsome blond puppy, that comes off as pure affectation. At one point, as she tries to seduce the reluctant Doctor Goldstein, she grins ultra-adorably and assures him, “I’m really fun…!” This bit of abhorrent business may be a script problem as much as a Hudson problem, but it becomes harder to distinguish the two as A Little Bit of Heaven lurches through the motions. Luckily, there’s an amusing crew of second bananas on hand to lessen the pain, including Peter Dinklage, Kathy Bates, and the aforementioned Punch. But the best way to get through A Little Bit of Heaven is probably on a morphine drip, a confection that, sadly, is not available at most concession stands.