Less than eight months ago, the comedy 50/50 showed that it’s possible to make a comedy about cancer that is both hilarious and sensitive, finding humor in well-grounded characters without exploiting the affliction as a plot device. By skillfully navigating such tricky subject matter, it was one of the best films of last year.
Perhaps an apology is due the filmmakers behind 50/50 for even mentioning it in the same breath as A Little Bit of Heaven, another cancer comedy that disastrously shows what can happen when the opposite approach is taken.
The film desperately wants to be funny and cute, while using terminal illness to jerk tears from moviegoers. The result, however, is mawkish and tasteless, merely treating cancer as more of an obstacle to romance and upward mobility.
Kate Hudson stars as Marley, a bubbly advertising executive with a fear of commitment whose life is put on hold when she is diagnosed with colon cancer. Her friends are supportive, and she tries to remain upbeat before striking up an unlikely romance with the young doctor (Gael Garcia Bernal) who suggests a cutting-edge treatment as the cancer begins to metastasize.
There are probably some good intentions buried beneath the haphazard script by newcomer Gren Wells, but it’s hard to develop much empathy for the characters in the final reel when everything leading to that point rings so emotionally false. The sequences involving Marley’s pearly-gates visits with God (Whoopi Goldberg) are the lowest of the low points.
Director Nicole Kassell (The Woodsman) doesn’t help matters by manipulating the audience with cutesy feel-good cliches before the proceedings take an inevitably downbeat turn in the final half.
A Little Bit of Heaven wastes a talented ensemble cast, with some folks probably wishing they could cross this off their respective resumes. Hudson’s career has been on a downward spiral for some time, but to see folks such as Romany Malco, Kathy Bates and Peter Dinklage show up is just disheartening.
For every way to get a premise such as this right, there are probably 10 ways to get it wrong. When the latter is true, things can become not only unfunny, but also uncomfortable.
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.