Kate Hudson stars as an ad exec diagnosed with terminal cancer in “A Little Bit of Heaven,” a romantic dramedy so full of tragic missteps it becomes almost perversely compelling. An only fitfully convincing Hudson leads a strong-on-paper cast, but most of the actors look uncomfortable here, particularly Gael Garcia Bernal as her love interest. Pic reps a particularly disappointing showing for helmer Nicole Kassell, finally making her sophomore follow-up to her 2004 debut, “The Woodsman.” Opening in Blighty before an as-yet-unannounced Stateside release date, “Heaven” could reap hellish word of mouth, but ensemble names should help it recover on ancillary.
Set in an attractively lensed New Orleans, the script by thesp-turned-writer Gren Wells introduces feisty adwoman Marley Corbett (Hudson) shocking clients with frank talk about femme attitudes towards sex. A carefree gal who shuns commitment and happily embraces her “slut” status, Marley finds emotional nourishment not from her lovers or her divorced parents (played by Kathy Bates and Treat Williams), but from her circle of friends: colleague Sarah (Lucy Punch), gay neighbor Peter (Romany Malco) and settled mom Renee (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Aware something’s not quite right physically, Marley goes for a check-up and meets hunky Mexican-Jewish doctor Julian Goldstein (Bernal). It turns out she has late-stage colon cancer, or “ass cancer,” as Marley defiantly calls it. While passed out on the examination table, she ascends to heaven and meets God (Whoopi Goldberg), who informs her she’s dying but grants her three wishes. Marley asks to be able to fly and to win a million dollars; the third wish remains on hold until later in the story.
The three-wish bit feels like an awkward conceit devised to create enough upbeat moments to counterbalance the storyline’s grim trajectory, but it doesn’t work. Indeed, everything here seems out of whack, with the result that “Heaven” feels like several middling movies trapped in the same body.
The bright, shallow-focus look, the stream of cutesy quips, the chirpy soundtrack, and Hudson and Bernal’s forced, rictus-like grins all feel at odds with the script’s halting attempts to confront the reality of terminal cancer. While there’s passing mention of bloody stools, the nausea of chemotherapy and the anger dying people feel, the presiding romantic-comedy spirit smothers anything dark with saccharine cheer. “Heaven” just feels glib and — especially for anyone who’s had cancer or watched someone suffer from it — insultingly sanitized.
Press notes suggest the pic was originally conceived as another opportunity for Hudson, after her perf in “The Killer Inside Me,” to take on more serious fare. Alas, barring a bit of crying, she remains largely in her comfort zone here: It’s as if she’s been locked, Rapunzel-like, in a tower of cutesy. She’s certainly not allowed to lose any hair during chemotherapy (at worst, her locks look a little under-conditioned). And yet, with her sudden, cruel attacks on friends and family, Marley is strangely dislikable throughout.
Bernal, likewise having a bad hair day, looks ill at ease with his saintly b.f. role. There’s no chemistry between the two leads, who can barely bring themselves to touch each other during their first kiss. Their physical discomfort together may have had something to do with the pic’s poor attempts to make Bernal look taller, resulting in some wobbly eyeline matches. Clumsy dialogue editing during one of the couple’s tiffs suggests post-test-screening triage.
The other actors fare a bit better, though there are two or three characters too many. Peter Dinklage has a vivid turn as a diminutive male escort hired to cheer Marley up (his nickname, he explains, is “a little bit of heaven”).
Kassell’s direction is anonymous at best, and it’s hard to see much common ground between this and “The Woodsman,” a moving and provocative exploration of a pedophile struggling to conquer his desires. Perhaps the only connection is that the protags of both movies are hard to sympathize with, albeit for very different reasons.