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February 11, 2014

A Little Bit of Heaven

by Franz Patrick


Little Bit of Heaven, A (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Marley (Kate Hudson), who recently became vice president of the ad agency she works for, is an energetic and fun-loving person. Since her promotion, however, she has started to look worn out: thick bags under the eyes, a very pale complexion, her verve waning a little. She and her friends believe it is due to the stress that comes with the job. Noticing a sudden weight loss and blood in her stool, Marley decides to see a doctor. After several tests, Dr. Goldstein (Gael García Bernal) informs Marley that she has colon cancer. Her options are limited. The cancer has metastasized.

“A Little Bit of Heaven,” written by Gren Wells and directed by Nicole Kassell, is a near misfire in that it contains performers who are ready to ride big fluctuations of comedic and dramatic moments but there are enough weaknesses in the screenplay to make the experience feel like a sham. The scenes that come off too calculated consistently submerge the project halfway into mediocrity.

Hudson shows an effervescence that is infectious. When she smiles—even though at times she verges on très cute—I want to smile, too. In a way, at least in the beginning, she has to play it almost over-the-top so that the decline in her character’s health is all the more noticeable. This is a standard approach but she makes it work.

I was not convinced that Hudson and Bernal share enough romantic chemistry. They are much more convincing together from a doctor-patient perspective. The flirtations in the hospital are appropriately mixed with awkwardness and delight. It is mainly because the flirtations are consistently one-sided. When the picture shifts to Marley and Julian being lovers, it is far less interesting. They are not magnetic together. When apart, they exude charisma but when they are in each other’s arms, kissing, or sharing the same bed, the energy is noticeably lower. If anything, the romance should be more passionate or steamier. Romantic screwball comedies from the 1930s and ‘40s know how to pull it off exactly.

The real star of the movie is a supporting character who gets the least amount of lines. Treat Williams plays Marley’s absent and distant father. When he learns about his daughter’s illness, he responds pragmatically instead of offering comfort first. For me, the most touching scene involves the two about to share a meal. There is real tension and sadness between the father and his only child because no matter how hard they try to overcome the disconnect between them, decades of not sharing anything concrete with one another have calcified their distance. They might as well be strangers. It is by far one of the most honest scenes in the film.

Most painful series of scenes to sit through involves Marley lashing out on her friends (Lucy Punch, Rosemarie DeWitt, Romany Malco). It feels too planned. Anyone can predict them making up five to seven scenes later. Why bother with the standard fluff one can expect to see from a struggling freshman television show? Why not use each friend, in an intelligent and insightful way, as a sounding board of what the lead character is going through? I began to suspect that the screenwriter does not fully understand the psychology of someone who is facing death.

Several key alterations might have made “A Little Bit of Heaven” into something more than an experience that is to be tolerated. It offers some laughs and moments of genuine sadness but there is nothing particularly special about it.

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