I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a softie. I am, however, apprehensive to admit that a large part of me doesn’t want to fault A Little Bit of Heaven, a shamelessly sentimental tearjerker that’s equal parts drama and comedy. That its heart is firmly in the right place, there can be absolutely no question. But is there a brain at work in any of its 100 minutes? While certain aspects are genuinely compelling, most seem to have been summoned from thin air, only to instantaneously evaporate before our very eyes. This is not a very well-made movie, and yet I understand that the filmmakers are trying to tell me something important about life, love, and happiness. To an extent, I hear what they’re saying. To a larger extent, I know to not let my emotions get in the way of providing a critical analysis.
Taking place in New Orleans, the film tells the story of Marley Corbett (Kate Hudson), who, despite being very outspoken and unorthodox, has made a name for herself as the vice president of an advertising agency. Flippant and free-spirited, she will gladly indulge in casual sex but refuses to commit, having been frightened away from marriage after witnessing her parents fail at it. Her life takes a drastic turn when she’s diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer. During her colonoscopy, she has a vision of being in heaven, where she walks on a cloud and eventually sees God sitting on a couch in the form of Whoopi Goldberg. I think this was intended to be a near-death experience, which doesn’t put a real positive spin on an exceedingly safe procedure like a colonoscopy. Anyway, God tells Marley that she’s dying and grants her three wishes. Not taking it too seriously, Marley first wishes for a million dollars and then for the ability to fly. She doesn’t make a third wish, mostly because she doesn’t yet know what she wants out of life.
Marley comes to, and thankfully, so does the film. For a time, at least; she will have one more vision, and yet again, it will come about when her life is in no real danger. I will not turn this into a skeptic’s debate over genuine near-death experiences and mere hallucinations. This story has a spiritual slant, and that’s just the way it is. What I do know is that, regardless of anyone’s beliefs, the film would have worked much better without either scene, as they seemed so arbitrary, lightweight, and stylistically inconsistent with everything else. It’s at its best when it examines the more seriously implications of Marley’s illness. I can personally vouch for the authenticity of her initial testing and the colonoscopy itself, having recently been hospitalized and operated on for a very rare gastrointestinal condition.
But I stray. Into Marley’s life enters a doctor named Julian Goldstein (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is both authentically Jewish and Mexican and cannot tell a joke to save his life. They will inevitably fall in love. In real life, this would violate the ethical standards of a doctor/patient relationship; here, it is not only not addressed but also provides convenient plot advancement. Be that as it may, Marley’s fear of commitment is the real issue here. Given her rocky relationship with her largely absent father (Treat Williams) and her overly worrisome mother (Kathy Bates), she finds Julian’s love very difficult to accept. But seeing as her chemotherapy wasn’t unsuccessful, and considering the failure of an experimental treatment that brought about too many side effects, she no longer has the luxury of taking the time to think things through.
Some of the better, if extremely sentimental, scenes involve Marley coming to terms with her impending death, which incorporate a circle of friends who must come to terms with it themselves. Some of the sillier scenes involve second-rate romantic comedy gags that really have no business in a story like this. Probably the single oddest subplot involves the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a male escort named Vinnie (Peter Dinklage), who knocks on Marley’s apartment door and offers his services under the nickname A Little Bit of Heaven. They don’t have sex, although they do mess with her neighbor down the hall by pretending to. And then, of course, there are the unexpected and implausible ways in which Marley’s first two wishes become a reality.
This is not a movie I can in good conscience recommend, as it truly does not know what it wants to be. It has the sappiness of a Nicholas Sparks melodrama, the charm and humor of a traditional Hollywood romcom, and the airiness of a third-tier fantasy. Having said that, there no point in denying the emotional impact of the final scenes; let’s just say that a box of tissues should be made a viewing requirement. A Little Bit of Heaven is a mess that isn’t glorious so much as amusing, so in that regard, it might actually be worth seeing. Some of it successfully tugged at my heartstrings. The rest of it had me shaking my head in disbelief. You simply cannot mix such different styles together and expect something cohesive. But I give everyone credit for trying. Any film that reaffirms positive life messages is not past all hope.
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