By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Sadly, actor-writer Seth Rogen’s buddy, screenwriter Will Reiser, was diagnosed with spinal cancer at age 25.
So, Rogen did what any of us would do under the tragic circumstances: he started developing a big-screen comedy about it.
The title describes not only the survival rate and thus the protagonist’s chances of recovery but also the film’s nervy blend of comedy and drama. It’s a fictional account of the Reiser-Rogen friendship during Reiser’s extensive treatment and his struggle to beat the disease.
The genre, ever expanding, is buddy comedy. The sub-genre, tiny and lonely, is buddy-with-cancer comedy. So let’s dish out some level-of-difficulty points here: this is a tough, tightrope-walking act to pull off, laughing in the face of death this way, as the film’s abandoned working titles (I’m With Cancer, Live With It) indicate.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (at left in photo) plays public-radio reporter Adam, Reiser’s alter ego alongside Rogen (right) as his closest friend, a version of himself named Kyle. At age 27, otherwise healthy Adam learns from his doctor that he has a rare form of cancer: a malignant tumor has been discovered in his back.
Adam is already involved in a shaky relationship with his girlfriend Rachael, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, whom Kyle suspects is not in it for the long haul and thus does not have Adam’s best interests at heart.
Anjelica Huston plays Adam’s devoted and devastated mother, already burdened with her husband’s (Adam’s father’s) Alzheimer’s disease.
And Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer play two of Adam’s fellow patients, who help him confront and sidestep some of the indignities of chemotherapy.
During his treatment, Adam is assigned to a young therapist, an inexperienced illness counselor played by Anna Kendrick, with whom Adam develops a vaguely flirtatious relationship. Scratch “vaguely.”
Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) — working from a loosely autobiographical screenplay by Reiser, who also co-produced with Rogen — stays away from the weepy or self-pitying approach. Instead, he captures and conveys the essential and inescapable loneliness of the battle, but does so while boldly minimizing the morbidity without trivializing the terror or submerging the suffering or sorrow of the situation.
Rogen lends his considerable comedic presence, keeping things realistically upbeat and delivering his witty, ring-of-truth dialogue with inarguable skill; gallows humor would appear to be a specialty of his.
But it’s Gordon-Levitt who is nothing less than remarkable. Playing a passive, reactive role — never as easy as it sounds — as if his character has been not just stunned but numbed by the news, he still manages to get us squarely in his corner despite the risky restraint.
This is not just an entertaining and poignant movie but an admirable one, trying to put a human face on a subject that’s all around us but that we have always treated with understandable kid gloves on the movie screen.
So we’ll diagnose 3 stars out of 4 for the R-rated cancer-survival tragicomedy, 50/50.
The chance you’ll appreciate it? 90/10.