While the central protagonist in 50/50 – the other cancer comedy currently playing – was determined to beat the disease and laugh off his impending death, Marley (Kate Hudson) in A Little Bit of Heaven takes a different approach. Successful, popular, yet emotionally cut-off, Marley has never allowed herself to fall in love for fear of being abandoned. When diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer, her initial reaction of laughing off her “pain in the ass” quickly gives way to regret, reconciliation and pining for the love he has never had.
As the title might suggest, A Little Bit of Heaven does feature a religious element, or rather, Kate finds God as she embraces the twilight of her short life. During a morphine-addled dream she comes face to face with The Almighty (in the form of Whoopi Goldberg), which appears to give her the confidence to embrace her fate and do right by her loved ones before she dies. These consist of her gals pals, token gay neighbour, estranged parents (both from Marley and each other), as well as her dreamy oncologist Dr. Julian (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is setting her heart a-flutter.
While Marley is supposed to be brash and opinionated, there is no getting past the fact that Kate Hudson is an unlikable screen presence. Her comic timing isn’t great, she isn’t particularly charming and when the script demands moments of dramatic gravitas, she struggles to do more than shout or moan. While the script insists she overcomes her flaws by the end of the film, what actually happens is the other characters forgive them and Marley becomes too weak to annoy us any longer.
Thankfully, there is a fine array of great supporting performances to keep the audience engaged. Lucy Punch is great as the loyal best friend who fears abandonment when her BFF passes on, Peter Dinklage does a hilarious turn as a diminutive gigolo, while Kathy Bates hits all the right notes as the mother who refuses to let her daughter go without a fight. Bernal has had a tough time in Hollywood and never gotten the roles he deserves. Here he looks a little lost at times, but does his best to be charming and compassionate in a fairly one-dimensional role.
The unashamedly sentimental conclusion should squeeze a tear from most people, but not because we are sad to see Marley go, so much as the music cues and trite dialogue hit the appropriate vulnerable buttons. Marley doesn’t really change beyond embracing a relationship she knows she’ll be out of soon enough and remains self-absorbed to the bitter end, even insisting on planning her own “celebration” funeral. The only saving grace is that the film never asks its audience to celebrate Marley’s life with her friends and family, but simply to accept her death as dramatic catharsis – something that is surprisingly easy to do.