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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Movie review: A Little Bit of Heaven, dir Nicole Kassell (2011)

Marley Corbett, played by the beautiful Kate
Hudson, tells her friends she has cancer.
When I finished watching this fabulous movie, tears streaming down my (handsome) face, I went online (as you do) to find out more; about the actors, about the director, and about what other people thought of it. With this final item of interest bookmarked now, my reaction to what I read was disbelief: the reviews were largely negative. What had happened? Was I an idiot? Perhaps the movie's distributors had rushed through a final, additional cut and this new version had ended up in my video store (and noone else's)? Of course not! The fact is that anyone who did not enjoy this lovely film has completely missed the point it tries to make. Which is that we all take life for granted, in a number of ways. Marley Corbett (Kate Hudson) shows us how we do this.

There is nothing wrong with this film. Quite the contrary.

At the movie's opening, Marley is on a bit of a roll. Her career in advertising has taken an upturn with a new promotion. But then there's a doctor's appointment, during which she discovers she has late-stage colon cancer. There's little that can be done. For the emotional rollercoaster that Marley now performs it's hard to blame her. How easy is it to die, especially when those around you maddeningly display the kind of diminishing pity that you abhor because it insults what is best in your relationships? Marley declines the clinical trial treatment that is recommended because she wants to enjoy the time that is left to her. It's about quality of life, she says. And for the same reason, she lashes out angrily at those friends who fail to engage with her in a way that allows her to live life to the fullest.

Ultimately, she understands the problems she is causing, and adapts her behaviour to accommodate those close to her. This change makes it impossible for others close by to be idiots. Marley brings out the best in her friends and family. By the moment of greatest crisis, Marley has mellowed to the point where she is consoling her best friend, Sarah Walker (Lucy Punch), a woman who feels a depth of grief so deep that her cheerful facade has become insupportable. It's a moving transformation, like watching a butterfly slip the bonds of its grey cocoon, open its still-wet wings, and breathe the world's air for the first time.

It's in the relationships between people that the real drama in this excellent movie plays out. In a sense, we've been acclimatised to certain types of sickbed interactions because we've all watched countless hospital dramas over the years. There is always a kind of reckoning. I don't think it's equal to criticism to say that this film is aware of those earlier cinema and TV experiences. It's also aware of how children relate, within popular culture, to their parents after they grow up and leave the nest. There's a period, while the parents are still hale and active, but when they no longer live with their children, when these relationships can be awkward. These are the kinds of relationships Marley has with her parents, Beverly (Kathy Bates) and Jack (Treat Williams). I felt at one stage like the filmmakers had decided to reconcile all those other faulty cinematic parental relations, in this movie. Sure, Beverly is scatty and congentially unhappy, but all Marley wants is for her to relax, stop fretting, and show her her love. Likewise with the egregiously wooden Jack. And they do. For me, years of strained relations with my own parents of that age dropped away and I saw how it should have been with them, but was not. This kind of revelation is rare in cinema.

But there are plenty of laughs, as well. The word "irreverent" has been used to describe Marley but I think "irrepressible" also figures in the equation. Like her romance with Julian Goldstein (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal). It has this comedy routine where Julian fudges jokes. The jokes are a key element of Marley's persona, an index of her desire to enjoy what life is left to her. So Julian practices his daffy delivery on her as she looks on patiently, and with time he gets better and better at it. It's just funny, or at least it was for me. If you can laugh at Julian getting caught up in telling his jokes then you have "got" how to watch this movie. And when he finally nails it, you cry-laugh along with Marley, a young woman in love.

The romance is necessary for the filmmakers to achieve the heights they are seeking, and it's a bold device. Where the real drama plays out is between people, as I said earlier, and it's signal to me that both the director and the screenplay writer are women. There is something so true and human about this wonderful, affecting movie. It moves past the cliches about sex and "making it" to a place of mature focus where a funny, clever and competent woman who is sick to the point of death can fall in love with a gentle man in a way that ignores the facile enticements that her situation might otherwise throw in the way of the scriptwriter and the director. There is nothing cloying or desperate about her infatuation. It is just Marley being the kind of woman she is: strong, wise and nurturing.

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