Little Bit of Heaven, A (United States, 2011)

May 01, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Little Bit of Heaven, A Poster

One of my fears when watching movies about characters coping with cancer is that they will turn into Lifetime disease-of-the-week melodramas: shallow, plot-by-numbers chronologies of the disease's progression that become either manipulative tear-jerkers (when the protagonist dies) or feel-good experiences (when the protagonist lives). Often, such movies contain tacked-on love stories; subplots about the victim reconnecting with an estranged father, mother, or sibling; and supernatural elements that soften the gloomy end. All these things are true of the worst offenders in Cancer Cinema. They are also true of A Little Bit of Heaven.

What's missing is honesty. It has been supplanted by artifice. The protagonist, Marley Corbett (Kate Hudson), has conversations with God (Whoopi Goldberg) as a way to let her know that death isn't so bad. In fact, it's pretty damn cool. No need to get upset when the end of the movie comes and no miraculous cure has been discovered. Along the way, Marley falls in love with her sexy doctor, Julian Goldstein (Gael Garcia Bernal), a "Jewish Mexican," because every terminal cancer patient must have a passionate love affair with her attending physician, even though he is violating every possible ethical tenet. A Little Bit of Heaven also provides helpful lessons about colon cancer and colonoscopies delivered in professorial snippets. Marley remains in good spirits throughout, allowing the filmmakers to skate through with a lighthearted tone. This spares us the unappealing possibility of watching the eternally perky Kate Hudson appear in something truly depressing.

There are some good scenes. Hudson does not follow the unwritten rule that in movies about dying women, the woman must become more beautiful as her disease progresses. In this case, Marley eventually starts looking like death warmed over, although Hudson was apparently unwilling to go all the way and shave her head. To excuse this lapse, the script helpfully informs us that her treatment would not cause all her hair to fall out. Someone should have told Joseph Gordon Levitt about this before he made 50/50.

The best scene features Peter Dinklage as a dwarf prostitute. That's probably a politically incorrect way to describe the character, but it gets the point across. The movie is rated PG-13 so Marley doesn't sleep with him, but they have a fun PG-13 evening. Kathy Bates, who plays Marley's mother, effectively conveys the sense of powerless frustration that accompanies the experience of watching one's daughter die. She wants to do something... anything... but there's nothing she can do. It's all in God's hands. In this case, that means Whoopi Goldberg (talk about a suspension of disbelief hurdle). Funny, when I think of "God," George Burns comes to mind.

A Little Bit of Heaven starts out like a romantic comedy. Marley is cheerful and happy and looking for love. But, as one of the hottest female ad executives in the business, she's married to her job. She's also a bit of a commitment-phobe; her buddies and family think her current friend with benefits, Rob (Steven Weber), might make great husband material, but she's not sold. She likes him, but doesn't "like him like that." It's when Marley visits the doctor after feeling run-down that the romantic comedy takes a sharp left turn into Lifetime melodrama. Enter the Sexy Doctor who decides that if he can't cure the patient, he can at least sleep with her. Enter Dear Old Dad, who thinks throwing money at a problem will make it go away. And enter God, who looks so much like Whoopi that even Marley remarks that she looks like Whoopi.

It's easy to be cynical about something like this when there are so many good movies about cancer to choose from. This is more Sweet November than 50/50. Perhaps the most disheartening thing about A Little Bit of Heaven is that its director, Nicole Kassell, previously made The Woodsman, which is about as tough and uncompromising a movie as once can get about pedophilia (starring Kevin Bacon). For her to slip this badly for her sophomore effort is a sad thing indeed. Even if one blames the screenplay, by first-time writer Gren Wells, it doesn't excuse Kassell. I'll acknowledge A Little Bit of Heaven's good intentions, but you know what they say about the road to hell... In trying to say something upbeat and inspirational about living with (and dying because of) cancer, A Little Bit of Heaven makes it seem like a glamorous and appealing way to go. Anyone with a friend or loved one who has battled this disease will find that A Little Bit of Heaven isn't just unrealistic, it's a little insulting.

Little Bit of Heaven, A (United States, 2011)

Director: Nicole Kassell
Cast: Kate Hudson, Gael Garcia Bernal, Peter Dinklage, Kathy Bates, Lucy Punch, Treat Williams, Steven Weber, Whoopi Goldberg
Screenplay: Gren Wells
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Music: Heitor Pereira
U.S. Distributor: Millennium Entertainment
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2012-05-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1