A Little Bit of Heaven is about a cancer patient (Kate Hudson) who falls in love with the doctor (Gael Garcia Bernal) who administers her colonoscopy. With such an unlikely and uncomfortable premise, the movie seems at first like it might turn out to be comedy, following the path of 50/50, the Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Seth Rogen movie that managed to balance hilarity with brief moments of piercing clarity and truth. But no. A Little Bit of Heaven advances rapidly into typical cancer movie territory — anger, regrets, making peace, conversations with God (played by Whoopi Goldberg), having sex with your doctor. Still, you should know right up front that even if you realize you’re being manipulated you are probably going to weep anyway.
Directed by Nicole Kassel (The Woodsman, which starred Kevin Bacon as a child molester), the movie focuses on Marley, a free spirited ad exec in New Orleans (Hudson) who doesn’t take anything too seriously — especially romance. Like any film that instructs us right off the bat that “the idea you have to fall in love to live happily every after is just untrue” — as Marley says — A Little Bit of Heaven quickly gets down to the business of proving that bit of wisdom false. When a movie opens with a character telling you that love isn’t important, that movie is definitely going to smack down that nonbeliever, because movies always believe love is important.
And sure enough, Marley finds out she’s got colon cancer and promptly dreams that God offers her three wishes. God’s pretty good about keeping Her word on the first two, but when Marley says she doesn’t know what her third wish would be, that she doesn’t know what she wants, God smiles wisely, because God in all Her infinite wisdom has seen Her share of movies, and She knows about that rule, too.
So Marley falls for Julian, the Jewish/Mexican doctor treating her, but unfortunately their affections feel tepid at best. More interesting and yet relatively unexplored is the dissonance between Marley and her pregnant sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is distancing herself from Marley out of fear, and Marley’s combative relationship with her mom (Kathy Bates), who can’t seem to say anything right. Still, the cast delivers unfussy performances, even Garcia Bernal, who’s in an impossibly creepy situation here, and Hudson, who’s required by the script to go through every cliched pace a cinematic cancer patient is required to experience.
At least the film doesn’t make Hudson’s deteriorating health too glamorous (though unlike Gordon-Levitt, she never loses her hair), and Marley’s biggest fears — how will her mom survive if she dies? who will take care of her beloved bulldog? — are more than enough to tug at the heartstrings. They aren’t the only things that will get to you, either. A Little Bit of Heaven deals in broad platitudes — live life to the fullest, appreciate your friends and family, make the most of your time on earth — but I suppose there’s always something to be said for celebrating the simple joys: walking in the park, dancing with transvestites or eating things you shouldn’t, like macaroni and cheese on pizza, a recipe featured in this movie that I am now determined to experience before I die. Talk about a little bit of heaven.
Cast: Kate Hudson, Gael Garcia Bernal, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kathy Bates, Treat Williams, Romany Malco, Lucy Punch, Peter Dinklage.
Director: Nicole Kassel.
Screenwriter: Gren Wells.
Producers: John Davis, Mark Gill, Robert Katz, Neil Sacker, Adam Schoeder.
A Millennium release. Running time: 106 minutes. Sexual content, include crude references, language. Opens Friday May 4 in Miami-Dade only: Sunset.