Based on the promotional picture and cheesy “hold on to love“ tagline of A Little Bit of Heaven, you’d be forgiven for expecting a standard, fluffy rom-com. It certainly has some of the right ingredients: take one fiercely independent ‘I don’t need a man’ commitment-phobe, introduce her to a handsome yet slightly awkward doctor and watch the sparks fly.
However, if there’s one thing that gets in the way of this fluffy love story, it’s that Marley meets her white-coat-wearing suitor during a health check up and their relationship effectively begins with him telling her she has colon cancer. Thus in one fell swoop, A Little Bit of Heaven becomes a film that goes where most rom-coms tend not to; marrying the word ‘cancer’ with ‘comedy’ and ‘romance’.
Marley Corbett is a single, carefree thirty something who doesn’t take life too seriously. Her only rule is ‘no relationships’ and so when she is faced with the possibility that she may be falling in love, it appears a harder concept for her to accept than the news that she is terminally ill. This is, after all, a woman who breaks the news to her boss with a handmade card that reads, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’ve got ass cancer and now you know too”. Of course, as the film progresses, Marley’s humorous spirit breaks, and credit to Hudson for playing these scenes with believable vulnerability and fear. Not just a kooky blonde…
The initial doctor/patient set up with Dr. Julian Goldstein (Gael Garcia Bernal) is played for laughs, their flirty exchanges contrasting with the clinical environment. During a rectal examination, Marley delivers the inevitable, “shouldn’t I at least know your name first?” line. However, there’s an element of having to just ‘go along’ with the fact that a doctor would enter into a relationship with a dying patient with as much casual ease and little thought as Dr. Julian seems to. You do know she’s dying, don’t you doc?
The award for ‘most surreal and out of place scenes’ goes to Whoopi Goldberg for her appearance as God, yes – GOD. Running with the idea that we all have our own imagined God, in Marley’s world; it follows that her God is Whoopi. These religious, ‘up in the fluffy clouds’ sequences are what bring the film back to a Hollywood bump. Forget a gritty, realist portrayal of death; with Whoopi guiding Marley throughout the film from the clouds above and granting her three last wishes like some sort of morbid fairy godmother, we are left with the wholesome knowledge that at the end of this all, Marley is going to heaven.
Now to the bit that I hold my hands up to: yes, I did shed a tear, and if you have even a hint of sentimentality in you, you will too. When it comes to the portrayal of terminal illness, many films have a tendency to paint a rose tinted, idyllic picture of people putting their differences aside and coming to terms with what’s happening (Stepmom springs to mind). Not so A Little Bit of Heaven. Marley’s best friend becomes wrapped up in her own pregnancy and pushes Marley and her cancer out of her life, while Marley’s feuding parents (Treat Williams and Kathy Bates) struggle to come to grips with her illness and descend into petty parenting rows.
Despite the clock ticking, Marley stubbornly refuses to make amends with her father, until a lull in the film where – presumably – it’s decided that this ‘loose end’ needs to be tied up, and pronto. Cut to: a make or break lunch scene where Marley dramatically storms out, and shock horror her father follows her and delivers an emotional speech, where she finally is able to understand his psyche. Predictable and a little rushed out.
However, there are poignant moments that are played out with the right subtlety and will resonate with anyone with a similar experience. Marley hands an envelope to her mother and asks her to give it to best friend Sarah, to which Bates looks momentarily confused: ‘But she’ll be here in a minute, you can give it to her”, before of course realising it is a letter to be opened after her death.
Overall, there are some equally believable moments as there are clichés in A Little Bit of Heaven. Kate Hudson tries her best to pull things along – and in all credit to her she’s perfectly cast as upbeat and carefree Marley – while Lucy Punch as kooky best friend Sarah adds some joy. Throw in a dwarf gigolo scene purely to give the film title double meaning (apparently his manhood is “a little bit of heaven”) and you’ve got yourself an untraditional rom-com that, although not spectacular, guarantees a sob-fest at least. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a good thing or not…