Female Filmmaker Friday: A Little Bit of Heaven, 2012 (dir. Nicole Kassell)
I first watched this movie last summer because it was on Netflix and I was in the mood for a rom-com. This film looked cute, but it was widely panned by critics. But, it was written and directed by women and since I was trying to watch more film (especially rom-coms) written by women, I watched it anyways. What I discovered was a perfectly fine rom-com that is nowhere near as terrible (actually it’s quite good!) than you would think from the reviews. I’ve been meaning to write about it for almost a year now, so I had to rewatch it to get all my points fresh. I’m not going to write about everything in the film that I find fascinating, just the highlights. It’s still streaming on Netflix, so you can watch it real quick before you read this or you can watch it after; either way I urge you to check it out, especially if you like rom-coms.
I read a few reviews that said they didn’t like the way the subject matter was handled, that they didn’t think this was an appropriate story for a romantic comedy, that the lead was unlikable. I’d just like to point out that this is basically the exact same plot of 50/50, which came out the same year and was lauded by critics. So I guess if your movie is a formulaic drama starring a “nice guy” who gets cancer then is fucked over by a bitch (I think that’s the actual phrase Seth Rogen uses, something like that anyway) who falls in love with his therapist, then your movie is okay. Nevermind that it was full of casual misogyny. But if your movie is a formulaic rom-com starring a carefree, independent woman, who would probably unfairly be called a bitch by many a man, who gets cancer and then falls in love with her doctor, then your movie is not worth anyone’s time. Yeah. Uh-huh.
Early on in the movie, Marley (Kate Hudson) is established as a brilliant ad exec who intimidates clients, scares her boss (while still getting the contract), parties the night before a big meeting (again, that she aces), has a few guys in her speed-dial when she feels like some booty. It’s a nice gender-swapping of the kind of role that is usually a dude who needs a woman to save his soul. We even have her booty-call guy wanting more from her and she’s just like, “ehhhhh.” While this is a little cliched, I like that it turns the workaholic playboy on its head and presents you with a woman living a similar lifestyle. Marley is sort of like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, and all she needs is a dude to come and show her what love can really be like. And what’s wrong with that? Apparently, everything because romance films are always shat on by critics. It’s not like the desire for companionship is one of the major aspects of human nature or anything. . .But I digress, I like that the character as written by Gren Wells, as directed by Nicole Kassell and as portrayed by Kate Hudson is so sure of herself and her lifestyle. She loves the life she leads and she makes no apologies. There’s no judgement here. We also get some backstory on why she’s so commitment phobic, which I will get to in a bit.
We also get some great little pieces of everyday feminism thrown in as we see Marley taking care of her friend Renee’s daughter Cammie. Early on they are playing with a Barbie, but instead of acting out a narrative with the doll, she’s making sure Cammie knows right away that the boobs on the doll are in no way realistic. It’s a cute scene. Later on, when Marley’s love interest tells Cammie that she’s looking pretty, we get this great scene, where she says, “and I’m smart!”
Throughout the film Marley doesn’t look well (and like, really, Kate Hudson does not look well almost right away and I thought it was bad makeup until I realized they were letting us know she was sick from the beginning without even telling us directly. It’s great). Eventually, her friend/co-worker tells her to go to the doctor and of course the doctor is Gael García Bernal, and since this is a rom-com, we know what that means. Gael is really great as Dr. Julian Goldstein in this film. He’s a bit of a dork, he’s awkward and he’s just as married to his job as Marley is, which means they’re just right for each other. You know that scene in Rocky where he talks about how he and Adrian have gaps and together they fill them? That’s what’s happening here.
I also like that for her early hospital visits, she goes alone. Marley’s fiercely independent and she doesn’t want anyone’s help until she asks for it. I can totally relate to that. The problem with her (and probably me) is sometimes we need help and we’re too stubborn to ask for it. What’s great about her character’s journey in this film, is she learns to ask for help. She learns to let everyone in – her friends, her parents, her eventual lover. But she does it on her own terms, and remains the independent, spunky woman she always was.
During a colonoscopy Marley has a hallucination (or is it?) wherein she goes to Heaven and God looks just like Whoopi Goldberg. In fact, God is Whoopi – saying that this is how Marley wanted her to manifest. If this were me, God would look like Orson Welles. So God gives Marley three wishes (hey! this is a fantasy, there are no rules!). Her first two wishes she comes up with without hesitation – a million dollars (but she forgets to say tax-free; even God doesn’t mess with the IRS!) and to fly (later, both these things come true). But she can’t think of anything else she wants. This is where the film gets a little schmaltzy, but also rings with truth: God tells Marley she does know what she wants, but she’s too afraid to say it. This is such a universal feeling. We’re afraid to say what we want, to go after what we want, because if we’re afraid if we do we might fail. I don’t know what it is about human nature that makes so many of us more comfortable not trying than trying with the possibility of failing.
Eventually, Marley tells her friends about her illness over a loud, boisterous dinner (side note: I love the her friend group and I love how they show how different her friendships are with each other those characters, but how they also function as a group.), then she has to tell her parents (who both fly in to see her). They’re clearly divorced and we see a lot of why Marley is the way she is from this first brief introduction to her parents (played wonderfully by Kathy Bates and Treat Williams). Most of the characters in this film look like stock characters on the outside: married friend, gay friend, artist friend, workaholic dad, overly emotional mother. But, what is so great about this film (and maybe something the critics missed?) is that each of these characters as the film progresses moves passed their respective clichés as each are given subtle, heartfelt moments that feel incredibly real. One big SPOILER: I specifically like that dad character because he’s mostly presented as clueless and absentee, but towards the end of the film he recalls something Marley said to him, probably right as her parents got divorced, that devastated his world. His icy exterior breaks down and he opens up to her and it’s a touching scene. But later, he still goes on a “quick” business trip to NYC, which just happens to be right before Marley dies. He’s on a plane. He misses it. He misses it like he probably missed most of her life. He was always going to miss it. He can love her with all of his heart, but he’s still the kind of guy who would miss every important moment. It’s bittersweet because they’d patched things up, but it also feels so real because his character changed a bit, but not completely. We also see with this character how much of Marley comes from him, how much of her behavior is just like his. Julian even points this out to her at one point. It’s funny how as you get older you almost always end up just like one of your parents (I am also just like my dad).
The real love of Marley’s life is her dog Stanley. He’s always there for her and she loves him so much. After that first sex scene above, after coldly rejecting the booty call guy, she let’s Stanley out of the bathroom and she greats him with such warmth and love. Kassell then cuts to a reaction shot of the guy, who just can’t even. That’s how I am with my cat. When you get to a certain age and you’ve been alone for most of that time except for your animal, they really become your better half. Later in the film when Julian asks her what she is afraid of, one of the first things she says is she’s afraid of who will take care of her dog after she’s gone. He is her everything. He is her rock. So often in movies women (and men even) are shown with pets, but the pets are just sort of in the background, their importance in the character’s life aren’t really. The only other movie I can think of off the top of my head that really gets it about people and their pets is As Good As It Gets.
I love Kathy Bates as Marley’s mother as well. She’s a bit smothering and she’s emotional, but she’s strong and she loves her daughter so much and the pain she’s going through watching her only child die is sometimes hard to watch. Bates is such a divine actress, we don’t even need much dialogue to see what’s going on inside of her character. This part her takes place right after Marley finds out she can cash out the life insurance she has through her company and takes her friends and mother out on shopping spree. This was one of the scenes a few reviewers really hated. I can see how having a scene like that in a movie about death could rub some people the wrong way, but the whole thing with Marley is that she loves life and she loves her friends and she wants to go out with a bang, just like she lived. She wants to do things for people while she still can. This is probably partially because she’s avoiding the reality of her situation, but I think it’s mostly just Marley being Marley. She’s got joie de vivre, even while facing death.
See that picture frame? Earlier in the film Renee gives it to her in celebration of her recent promotion. Marley asks if she’s setting her up with that guy, to which Renee says, no the idea is to replace the fake picture with a real guy. This kind of shit really happens, not just in movies. I love that Marley’s reaction is to just keep the framed guy. The thing is, Marley does want someone to love and to love her, but she’s so afraid because of what happened with her parents that she won’t go the extra mile to commit. This, too, really happens. But she’s also not the kind of person to do what society expects her to do. She’s gonna do this on her own terms. Then, as she gets ill and she meets someone who fills her gaps, she doesn’t want to get close because she knows she’s going to die soon and doesn’t want to hurt another person. What’s so great about this character is that she’s a bit of hedonist, but she’s also always thinking about her friends and family and what will happen to them, even if she doesn’t show it. Sometimes, she doesn’t even know it.
Eventually, he neighbor and BFF Peter hires her a male escort to try to cheer her up. This is where the title of the film comes from, jsyk. Vinnie the escort’s nickname is “a little bit of Heaven.” Peter Dinklage is so charming and so wonderful in this role. He’s like Richard Gere’s character in American Gigolo. He’s a bit of a therapist on top of offering some sexual healing. Marley’s not up for it, but the two have what appears to be a great night of cards and conversation, ending in a great fake sex scene for the benefit of Marley’s friend Peter. I love this scene because it shows two people connecting on a friendly level, even if briefly, and leaving each other a little less wounded afterwards.
This is a romantic comedy, though, so we have bits and pieces of dating as well. At first whenever Julian and Marley meet, it’s awkward (as it should be!), but as they get to know each other a little better, their moments together become really sweet. Marley helps Julian learn how to tell jokes, Julian helps Marley learn how to express how she feels. There’s a date montage (always a date montage!), time goes by and just as they start getting comfortable together, Marley pulls away (which is fitting for her character; she’s afraid of commitment, but she also doesn’t want another person to get attached to her).
One of the best things about this film, and I really think it’s because there was a woman helming it, is how terrible Kate Hudson looks throughout the film. She doesn’t look glamorous or beautifully pale or any of the clichéd ways of showing sick women in cinema. Nope. She looks like shit through most of the film. Saggy eyes, baggy clothes, awful hair. It’s great. She looks like her character is dying of cancer. Not the cinematic version, but for real. I think it’s brave to show a woman not looking perfect, because Hollywood is all about women always having their makeup just right even when they’re stranded on a desert island and haven’t showered in months. We need more of this.
Before we find out about Marley’s cancer at the beginning of the film, we find out that Rosemarie DeWitt’s character Renee (the married friend, mother of Cammie) is pregnant with her second child. As the film develops, she’s the friend that has the hardest time going along with Marley’s carefree way of facing death, even to the point of distancing herself from the friend group. In one really heartbreaking scene towards the end, Marley shows up at her house to apologize for being a bitch earlier, but Renee won’t answer. Marley tells her it’s not fair that she has to go through this sadness and this happiness at the same time. Through most of this speech, Kassell holds on Renee, who sinks to the floor sobbing. I remember when I first saw this movie I was telling my mother about how powerful this scene was and she told me about how after her first child died, a few of her close friends acted the same way. It’s hard to know how to deal with death and some people just shut down. Later, in a scene I’m sure critics thought was cheesy because critics have no heart, the film cuts back and forth between Marley dying and Renee’s son being born. The whole film is about the balance of life and death and I think artistically speaking, this was a great way to show that. It’s about the bitter and the sweet.
The film ends with Marley’s wake, which she planned with her mother, saying she was going to put he f-u-n back in funeral. I love this because Marley is the age when a lot of people would be planning their weddings, but instead she plans a funeral. She’s someone who lived her life out loud – probably why she’s living in New Orleans – and she’s going to go out the same way – with zest and color and music and laughter. We get this great shot of her dancing while observing her wake and I can’t help but think of the end of Woody Allen’s Love and Death. The final few shots in the film are of Julian looking over at where Marley sits with Whoopi/God as Marley’s voice over talks about the love she felt for him and the way he looked at her made her feel alive. I’m trying to think of another movie that really puts that feeling into words. It’s not about the male gaze, that’s something totally different. It’s that feeling you feel when someone who loves you looks at you with all that love. I guess the end of Ghost goes there a bit, although it’s from the male perspective. Seeing someone see you, the real you, not the you that you project for others, is a powerful feeling and it’s something Marley had never experienced before. It’s something everyone should experience once. It’s something you never forget.
Posted on July 4, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged 2012, A Little Bit of Heaven, Gael García Bernal, Gren Wells, Kate Hudson, Kathy Bates, Nicole Kassell, Peter Dinklage, Rosemarie DeWitt, Treat Williams, Whoopi Goldberg. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.