Malignant Narcissism, by David Bax
I suppose there are a number of paths one can take when making a movie about cancer. Most of them, as evidenced by the sheer tonnage of bad cancer movies, are inadvisable. Honestly, I wanted to list some good films about dealing with cancer but there are almost none. Just watch Terms of Endearment if you haven’t before. Most films that are concerned with the disease are either cynical (American Splendor) or uplifting (Love Story). The new film from director Nicole Kassell, A Little Bit of Heaven, is convinced it’s uplifting but is poisoned by its own unexplored cynicism.
It’s not very far into the movie before single, successful New Orleans advertising executive Marley (Kate Hudson) finds out she has cancer and that she’s going to die from it soon. She spends her last few months beginning her first serious relationship – with her oncologist, Julian (Gael García Bernal) – while leaning hard on her ridiculously patient support group of friends and family.
Kassell’s only other feature was 2004’s unsettlingly insightful melodrama about a child molester, The Woodsman. So I believe I had good reason to go into this film with high hopes, despite the promise of another inevitably thin and shrill performance from Hudson. The rest of cast was full of big hitters. Peter Dinklage, Lucy Punch, Romany Malco, Kathy Bates, Rosemarie DeWitt, Steven Weber, Treat Williams and Alan Dale all do good work, as they all have before, but they are ultimately unable to contend with Hudson and the dunderheaded screenplay.
Chiefly, the film’s problem is that Kassell, Hudson and first-time screenwriter Gren Wells don’t seem to be aware of what a shallow, awful person Marley is. Certainly, they insist (unconvincingly) that her lifestyle of hard drinking and fuck-buddies is unhealthy. But they don’t acknowledge in any but the most facile way how self-centered she is. The emotional strain she puts on those in her acquaintance by forcing them to revolve around her is presented almost as charming. Of course every bows to her whim, the film asserts. She’s the star!
More ghastly is the fact that, even as she nears death and begins apologizing to people, she maintains her essential egoism. To one friend, she literally apologizes for not asking how the cancer drama has affected her. Astoundingly, to another friend, she all but says, “I’m sorry you’re going to miss me so much.” What’s more, everyone forgives her. This film is a validation for the worst kind of ego.
Like a lot of recent movies, this one took advantage of Louisiana tax credits and shot in New Orleans. It’s a deeply cinematic city, not just in architecture but in tone. As usual, the location does the film a lot of favors. In some ways, though, it manages to mess even that up. No movie set in the Crescent City, for example, has ever featured so much shitty music. Don’t go see A Little Bit of Heaven. Save your money. Go see New Orleans for yourself. And if you do get cancer, try not to use it as an excuse to be an asshole to your friends.