Kate Hudson's cancer horror show

The bubbly actress's horrific movie, "A Little Bit of Heaven," turns terminal illness into a twee joke

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 3, 2012 6:30PM (EDT)

Kate Hudson in "A Little Bit of Heaven"
Kate Hudson in "A Little Bit of Heaven"

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to mourn a sad loss. A luminous, unique presence who ably graced our lives and then was snuffed out far too early. A moment of silence, please, for Kate Hudson's career.

It seems like only yesterday we were beguiled by the lively, bohemian Penny Lane in "Almost Famous." But it's been a painful decade since, as I know many of you gathered here can bear witness. Those of you who steadfastly supported Hudson over the years, who paid good money for "Bride Wars," for "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," for "Raising Helen," "You Me & Dupree," "Fool's Gold," "My Best Friend's Girl," "Alex and Emma," "Le Divorce," and "Something Borrowed" -- you know what I'm talking about. You're heroes for sticking around this long. That's why it's both tragic and necessary to come to the end of our journey now, to let her go off to a better place. The D-list. It's called "A Little Bit of Heaven."

The movie, which opens in theaters Friday and is available on demand on iTunes, tells the story of Marley, a free-spirited young New Orleans advertising executive. Marley has good friends -- including a pregnant lady and a gay black man, because she's awesome. She has an adorable dog and a penchant for casual sex and whimsical bike riding. But no sooner can her pals offer a champagne toast celebrating the "youngest and hottest vice president" in her company's history than things start to go terribly wrong. Like millions of helpless white people every day, Marley begins having visions of a cool African-American as God. There is no known cure. Once Marley starts chatting with Whoopi Goldberg in that ethereal, cloud-heavy set, you know she's in trouble. She's got terminal Movie Cancer. Naturally, this is the perfect opportunity for her to get in touch with her feelings, have many scenes of hugging her crying costars, and start banging Gael García Bernal. It's a little weird because he's supposed to be her oncologist.

It's not easy making entertainment out of cancer. Yet Showtime's "The Big C" has mined the terrain to Golden Globe-winning effect. Last year's "50/50," based on writer Will Reiser's real experiences as a young person suddenly diagnosed with a potentially fatal diagnosis, became a critically acclaimed sleeper hit.  And when you've got a condition that will directly affect roughly 41 percent of us, there's surely some dramatic and comedic resonance to be found in the subject matter. Speaking as someone who has had Stage 4 cancer and endured a clinical trial, and who believes firmly that anyone who's been through all that ought to at the very least get to bang Gael García Bernal in the Big Easy, I am the ideal audience for this movie. Why, then, somewhere around the inevitable shopping spree montage, did I scrawl the words "WORSE THAN CANCER" in my notebook, and then underline them fiercely in the darkness?

Maybe it's the way Bernal, as a doctor with seemingly zero ethical problem about sleeping with his terminally ill patient, says "schmuck" – because he's supposed to be Jewish. Maybe it's because Kathy Bates, as Marley's mom, looks like she's trying so hard with such unforgivable material. Maybe it's because the biggest audience laugh of the whole movie came when Hudson said, with a straight face, "Come on, Doc. Level with me." Maybe it's because when Peter Dinklage, as a male escort, says the title of the movie, it turns out it's his character's nickname. Little Bit of Heaven. Oh, human suffering. Truly, this is what it looks like.

Mostly, brothers and sisters, I think we know why this movie causes a pain all the medical marijuana in the world can't make a person forget. It's Hudson. Hudson, whose character ostensibly goes through chemo, yet never loses a bouncy curl off her blond head. Who enters a trial but quits with a shrug about "quality of life." Hudson, who, thanks in large part to director Nicole Kassell and first-time screenwriter Gren Wells, willingly put herself in a movie about cancer that seems to have been created by people who've only had cancer described to them. Hudson, who chose to place herself in the pantheon of life-affirming doomed sick girls like "Sweet November's" Charlize Theron and "Autumn in New York's" Winona Ryder and the mother of them all, "Love Story's" Ali McGraw, and comes across as a shrill, affected parody of her hair-tossing Almay ad persona.

It's an occupational hazard that any actress with marquee value will sometimes find herself in romantic schlock. Yet women like Renee Zellweger and Sandra Bullock have managed to balance their turkeys with riskier performances and a broader range of films. Hudson, in contrast, has remained frozen in time, forever doing variations on her young rebel with a heart of gold, Penny Lane. So let us remember Hudson today not as the husk of an actress she became, endlessly subjecting moviegoers to lazy dreck. Let us remember her as bright, fearless Penny. She'd want it that way. Let us move on, and spare ourselves the ordeal of further films in which a daffy blonde flashes a megawatt smile and recites terrible dialogue and dances adorably even though she's, like, dying, you guys. For truly, life is much too short for such trials.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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A Little Bit Of Heaven Cancer Movies Romantic Comedy