“This idea that you have to fall in love to live happily ever after is just not true.” Of course this is what Marley believes --she’s single, sassy, successful -- but because she’s the lead of a romantic comedy as played by Kate Hudson, she doesn’t yet know just how wrong she is. Marley bikes to her job as an especially savvy VP of marketing without a care in the world, gabs about her latest one-night stand with her Gay Black Neighbor (Romany Malco), and imagines that God must take the form of Whoopi Goldberg while doped up mid-colonoscopy.
You read that right. Marley isn’t feeling well, and so she checks in with Dr. Julian Goldstein (Gael García Bernal), only to discover that, in addition to having a total dreamboat doctor, our perky lead has particularly aggressive colon cancer. That’s the mission of A Little Bit of Heaven: to meld terminal illness tear-jerker with generic rom-com into one tone-deaf whole.
It doesn’t help that the far funnier and more emotionally sincere 50/50 hit screens while this film’s Stateside release found itself delayed by a year. That doesn’t change the fact that Heaven’s idea of laughs involve laxative humor, drunken biking, monkeys urinating at the zoo, and a diminutive escort played by Peter Dinklage (his character’s nickname improbably aligns with the film’s own title), and that its idea of heart is to have said lothario share his own life-after-death experiences, to have Marley bond with her meddlesome mom (Kathy Bates) over teenage masturbatory phases, and to see Marley’s life insurance policy cashed in for the sake of a shopping spree. And that’s leaving out the romance, during which Bernal’s character struggles to tell a good joke (much like the filmmakers) when not flagrantly crossing the doctor-patient boundary with the help of soft lighting and some well-placed sheets.
One might argue that director Nicole Kassell’s last film, the 2004 pedophile drama The Woodsman, was less uncomfortable than this outing is. A cheap shot, to be sure, but everything here is captured with that trademark Hallmark glow to the point where it’s hard to believe that the French Quarter itself isn’t already supposed to be passing for heaven whenever Marley takes her detours to the sky for a heart-to-heart with Whoopi. It’s not like Gren Wells’ screenplay does anyone any favors, trotting out emotional development and romantic estrangement with yawn-inducing regularity.
At the heart of it all is Hudson, whose career over the past decade has steadily eaten away at her Oscar-nominated performance of considerable charm in Almost Famous with one tame rom-com after another. While Heaven ostensibly presents a challenge of some dramatic depth, it instead allows the actress to operate on two kinds of auto-pilot: the free spirit falling head over heels in love, and the stubborn woman learning to forgive her family and appreciate her friends as the curtain closes on her young life. When Marley agrees to an experimental treatment, a doctor assures her that “your hair will be fine.” But of course it will for our starlet, even as she de-glams herself for scenes of sickness.
A Little Bit of Heaven is sap without the weight of reality, awkwardly combined with a romance without much chemistry, and while it does exactly one thing right, it’s not something to be discussed freely here. Let’s simply say that a happy ending is in the eye of the beholder.
A Little Bit of Heaven is currently playing in select cities and is also available on demand through cable providers, Amazon, iTunes and such.