When Seth Rogen’s friend Will Reiser got a rare form of cancer at age 24, they bolstered their courage by imagining a movie that would be true to their experience. The movies they knew about people with cancer had characters who were (1) older, (2) transformed into saintliness and transcendence and reconciliation, and (3) by the end of the movie — dead. Reiser barely knew how to live as an independent adult. While his contemporaries were worried about dating and figuring out their careers, he was forced to deal with dire, literally life and death decisions.
Resier recovered and wrote this screenplay and Rogen co-produced and played the character based on himself. The result is a movie that captures the surreal nature of being seriously ill, the way you feel as though you appear to be on this planet but in reality you are living somewhere else, Planet Cancer, and the “normal” life around you is at the same time disconcerting and reassuring. But this is also a movie filled with hope, and humor, and inspiration. No one is transformed into saintliness or transcendence but there are lessons learned, losses borne, and hurdles overcome.
The superb Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old who works for NPR. We first see him on an early morning run, stopping at a red light even though there are no cars around for miles. This is a guy who follows the rules. And then what he thinks is a backache turns out to be a rare form of cancer, a tumor on his spine, which his doctor describes as “quite fascinating.” He is still in the early stages of a relationship with Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), an artist. “I have a drawer? We’re getting so domestic.”
Rachael means well and even likes the idea of herself as a loyal girlfriend, but she also feels trapped by Adam’s illness. Adam’s mother (Anjelica Houston) wants to help, but that threatens Adam’s still-fragile sense of independence. Adam meets with a young grief counselor (Anna Kendrick as Katherine) who is just as new to counseling as he is to grieving.
Kyle (Rogen) is immature and squeamish, but it turns out that he is braver than he or Adam knew. What he lacks in judgment and tact he makes up for in heart and candor. When he hears that Adam’s odds are 50/50, he looks on the bright side with a metaphor drawn from his own priorities: “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds!” And then there’s priority number one — Kyle assures Adam that cancer is a real chick magnet.
I don’t know whether that which does not defeat you makes you stronger. But that which does not defeat you does show you how strong you are, and how strong your relationships are, too. Reiser’s insightful script and Gordon-Levitt’s sensitive performance make this one of the year’s most satisfying films.
Translation: Lead character is diagnosed with cancer, frank portrayal of treatment and reaction of the patient and his family and friends, very strong and crude language, explicit sexual references and non-explicit situations, drinking and drug use
Family discussion: Who was the most helpful to Adam and why? Does this movie make you think differently about serious illness? What role did humor play in helping Adam cope? What did he learn from Katherine?
If you like this, try: “God Said Ha,” “My Life Without Me,” and “Crazy Sexy Cancer”