Kate Hudson seems doomed to never get a chance to repeat her Almost Famous glory, stuck in a rut of endless romantic comedies, from the passable (Alex & Emma, How to Lose a Guy in 1o Days) to the horrific (Bride Wars, Something Borrowed). Nicole Kassell‘s A Little Bit of Heaven attempts to give Hudson just an, ahem, little bit more to work with, but the film is bogged down with too many shabby and shopworn rom-com tropes to ever rise above the sum of its tired and worn-out parts.
Hudson plays Marley Corbett, who comes complete with all the hallmarks of a modern romantic comedy heroine – she’s dead-set against committed relationships (despite being quite in control of her sexual conquests), she depends on a Bridget Jones style urban family made up of friends and co-workers, she has a hip job, and she’s got a bawdy sense of humor that endears her to the most random of people. Marley is the last person you’d ever expect to get cancer (especially, as she so eloquently calls it, “ass cancer”), but her rapid weight loss and general malaise are not due to work stress or her wild social calendar – it’s the big c.
When Marley finds out she’s got cancer, and the bad kind, the late-stage kind, she vacillates between all the normal big emotions – grief, anger, fear, acceptance, and weirdly enough, love. Because A Little Bit of Heaven is a romantic comedy at its heart and because Gren Wells‘ script is not particularly inspired, Marley falls in love with her doctor – a Mexican Jew named Julian Goldstein (Gael Garcia Bernal). As likable and charming as both Hudson and Bernal are on-screen (and they really are, and they’re really trying hard here), their romance is doomed from the start – and not because Marley is dying from cancer, but because the two of them have zero chemistry. Hudson has a more palatable bond with the rest of her supporting cast – including the criminally underused and always-wonderful Rosemarie DeWitt and Lucy Punch, who play two of her best friends.
A Little Bit of Heaven does, however, occasionally finds moments of honesty buried beneath its generally paint-by-the-numbers approach. Kassell doesn’t balk at making Hudson look progressively more ill – her face is gaunt, her clothes hang off her body, she’s drained of color – and she’s likewise interesting in presenting certain portions of Marley’s cancer in a smart, matter-of-fact manner. It’s not every day that the female romantic lead in a film undergoes a colonoscopy and coaxes out some laughs while she’s at it, but Kassell directs Hudson to such high points in the otherwise dreadful film.
It’s during Marley’s colonoscopy that encounters one of the film’s most underused plot points – drugged up, she sees God (her God looks like Whoopi Goldberg, which is convenient, because she’s played by Whoopi Goldberg), who informs Marley that she’s dying and grants her three wishes before her untimely demise. As a plot conceit, Wells could have mined the wish-granting Whoopi-God for both humor and honesty – the exact two things she does not mine the wish-granting Whoopi-God for. Marley’s “wishes” get granted in silly, flimsy, deus ex machina ways – a radio contest, a random interjection by her boss, a sudden realization that goes against everything we know about Marley. Moreover, despite going so far as to put a physical God into her film, Wells limits Marley’s spiritual awakenings to one scant conversation with Julian, who reveals himself to be just as wishy-washy as his lady friend.
For all its shortcomings, A Little Bit of Heaven does prove to be startlingly adept at one thing – getting its audience to sniffle, snuffle, even sob. But that’s not to say that the film contains some deep, emotional undercurrents – it’s just top-loaded with so many situations and characters that audience members will almost assuredly find something, anything to connect with. While most of the film’s marketing is centered on the irony of the commitment-phobic Marley finally finding love with the doctor who tells her she is dying of cancer, Marley’s life is packed with still more potential landmines of easily found emotion. There’s her overbearing mother (Kathy Bates) who Marley fears can’t live without her, her “emotionally constipated” father (Treat Williams) she’s hated her entire life, her best friend who is about to have another child that Marley will likely never know, her best friend’s other child that she will never get to see grow up, a beloved co-worker just coming into her own, the world’s best neighbor (Romany Malco), even a darling bulldog who will be left parent-less should Marley crock off – there’s someone or something for everyone to mourn! But will you care? Will any of it stick once you walk out of the theater? Maybe just a tiny, little, itty bit.
The Upside: Points have to be given to director Nicole Kassell and writer Gren Wells for even attempting to make a heavier film with all the trappings of a romantic comedy; Peter Dinklage’s (all too brief) supporting role; it’s all relatively harmless.
The Downside: Shabby and flimsy, the film doesn’t ever go for real emotion, instead settling for facsimiles of what sadness or grief or anger would look like, wrapped up in archetype relationships; no chemistry between the leads; overlong and under-edited.
On the Side: Writer Gren Wells used to be a stand-up comedian. Which is hard to tell from this film.