Friday, June 22, 2012

A Little Bit of Heaven, A Whole Lot of Crap: A rant against bad illness movies

I even find the poster annoying.
Now, regular readers know that I am an unreconstructed Sparksian, so it was probably no surprise that I would be perversely attracted to A Little Bit of Heaven. This mess of syrupy fluff seemed to promise the same blend of romance and melodrama (romodrama?) that Sparks adaptations sign, seal, and deliver. Kate Hudson, who has been on a precipitous downward slide since Almost Famous, plays a young, hip girl who gets diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. At the very best I was hoping for a glassful of Sweet November with a pinch of 50/50. What I got was a double-shot of dumbed-down dreck.

I knew that the road was going to be rocky when a) a cute kid; b) a cute dog; c) a sassy gay best friend; and d) pointless voiceover narration were all introduced in the first three minutes. And it's not a totally great sign when they try to establish Hudson's character, Marley, as a with-it, sex positive girl by having her make a booty call, land an ad account for condoms, and say out loud "I'm really fun" (because she seems really intolerable) in the first five minutes. Plus, the film criminally misuses both Peter Dinklage (I shit you not--his character is where the title comes from) and Gael Garcia Bernal's mouth. But look, I rented the death porn movie--I'll accept the soundtrack doing the bulk of the emotional work of the story, I'll even accept Whoopi Goldberg playing God in Marley's anesthesia-induced vision, and her undergoing Samantha Jones chemo (you still have enough energy to go out drinking). But what bothers me about this movie is more systemic than specific.

My problem is when films use illness as a convenient entre into another recognizable narrative--be it a love plot, a redemption plot, whatever. The thing about serious illness is that it disrupts narrative. It explodes any and all sense of logic or cohesion or cause and effect that make people who look to stories for meaning (i.e., humans) comfortable. In this way, sickness graphically demonstrates the way our bodies and minds and worlds are in a constant (and at times heartbreaking) state of dynamic conversation with each other. And texts (movies, books, plays) are in a unique position to literalize and explore how being life-threateningly ill intensifies and exposes that relationship, both for the suffering body and for the people who love that body. Movies like A Little Bit of Heaven play it way too safe, which is fairly insulting to people who are ill, people who care about people who are ill, and people who believe in art's power to honestly and bravely investigate what it means to be human.  

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