Will Reiser and Seth Rogen were friends who worked together on “Da Ali G Show,” making fun of everything and everyone, especially the powerful. So, when Reiser got cancer, they took it on in the same spirit. Finding their own experience as survivor and friend very different from the transcendent and saintly stories they had seen in movies and thoroughly annoyed by all the people who asked Reiser if he had a “bucket list,” they decided to write their own movie. It is not a factual re-telling of the real-life story but it is an authentic portrayal of the feelings of young men who have not even figured out how to live when they are confronted with thinking about the possibility of death. Can a man who is not very good at taking care of himself take care of his friend?
Resier’s character is called Adam, and he is a producer at NPR. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the role. Rogen’s character is named Kyle and is played by Rogen himself.
Reiser and Rogen sat down with a small group of journalists at the Georgetown Ritz hotel to talk about the movie. As he was “going through the ordeal,” Reiser said, he and Rogen talked about how different the experience was from anything they had seen in a movie. But people’s impression was formed by the movies. They’d ask him about “My Life” or “The Bucket List.” “To punch you in the face is the first thing on it,” said Rogen. They wanted to make a movie where the audience does not cry all the way through and the person doesn’t die at the end. “Tonally,” said Rogen, “not the procedures.” Reiser said that in movies the cancer patient “has this great clarity, understands life and who they are, comes to terms with all these issues with family members and dies the next day. For me, it was dysfunctional and crazy and no one really knew what to say and then I got better and was left with this aftermath of all this.” He felt comfortable writing about personal things because of his close relationship with Rogen and Evan Goldberg, even though it was his first screenplay. “I’m so aware of all the laughs are in the movie,” Rogen said. “I’m so not used to having a movie that bums people out for any length of time. So when I’m watching it, I’m like, we’ve got this thing and this thing and then we get a big laugh and get these people out of this.” They agreed that the biggest laugh is when the immediate reaction from Adam’s mother, played by Anjelica Houston, is “I’m moving in.”
“It’s less that the scenes actually happened to me and more that it draws thematically on what happened with relationships,” Reiser told us. “And also the way in which my friends and I used humor to cope. At that time I was very neurotic and worried about everything. Seth would describe me as annoying.” “Used to be,” Seth broke in. “I didn’t have the ability to express what I was feeling and kept everything bottled up inside. That emotional arc — Adam is very much an extension of me and what I went through. The MRIs, those are my real MRIs. And we worked together and he’s my closest friend and what the doctor said, that all really happened.” “The question we asked ourselves was not ‘did this happen,'” Rogen said, “but ‘is this like something that would have happened?” “Did this feel real?” Reiser said. “Are these conversations we could have had?” “There was a scene in an early draft where the character went to talk to a rabbi,”said Rogen. “We’re like, would you do that?” “I have not been back to synagogue since I was bar mitzvahed,” said Reiser. “But the last scene in the movie, changing the dressing, that really happened. He’s very squeamish. A lot of that scene we figured out as we rehearsed it.”
The one role where they insisted on an audition for was Rachael, the girl Adam is dating, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Help”). Adam’s illness puts a serious strain on the relationship. “We knew it would be tricky to be able to play that character and not have her be a bitch. You see that bitchy girlfriend character in so many movies,” said Reiser. “Or a cartoon,” added Rogen. “Not necessarily that you would sympathize with her, but intellectually you would understand what she is going through.” Canadian actor Serge Houde plays Adam’s father, who is struggling with dementia. Joseph Gordon-Levitt came in at the last minute, arrived at 11, stayed up all night talking about the part, and was rehearsing and getting fitted for the costume and wig two days later. “We don’t want a guy doing a Will impression,” said Rogen, “but people say he’s exactly what Will was like at that age. He never asked him behavioral things, but he did ask him about emotional things.”
Rogen and Reiser have different approaches to writing. Reiser begins with the characters. “I really agonize and spend a lot of time my characters and doing a lot of research. If I find myself forcing it, it’s because I don’t know the characters.” But Rogen begins with a scene ideas and things he wants to put in the movie. “We make a lot of lists. Right now we’re working on an apocalypse story, so we made a list: sinkholes, demons, exorcism. And then funny ideas come out of it. Sometimes the characters are the last thing that’s developed.” They said the therapy scenes were among the hardest to write, especially the last one, where we see the growth of the young therapist played by Anna Kendrick and her ability to call Adam out on his behavior and see his situation more clearly. Rogen kept sending it back for rewrites. Reiser said the line in the movie he is proudest of is when she says to Will, “Your mother has a husband she can’t talk to and a son who won’t talk to her.” Rogen laughed. “A lot of moms got a lot of calls after that one.”
They are working together with the “50/50” director, Jonathan Levine, on another movie based on Will’s life, “Jamaica,” about a vacation he took with his grandmother.
Even the delectable Anna Faris cannot get us to root for the character she plays in this charmless, distasteful dud. The first scene is weirdly identical to the opening of “Bridesmaids,” and one of the movie’s scarce pleasures is the opportunity to consider how the same introduction to both characters can make us see Kristin Wiig as needy but sympathetic and Faris as insincere and manipulative. And it’s downhill fast from there.
Ally (Faris) has lost her job but what really worries her is an article in a woman’s magazine about what your “number” says about you. That would be the number of men she has slept with, and hers is 20 after series of terrible choices, most recently a drunken encounter with the boss who told her she was being laid off (Joel McHale of “Community”). Believing she can never get married if her number goes any higher (because of some vague “study”), she decides to go through her reject pile to see if anyone from her past might be her Mr. Right. She enlists the aid of the hunky guy across the hall (Chris Evans of “Captain America” and “Puncture”) to help her track them down. Meanwhile, her sister (Ari Graynor of “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) is getting married and her mother is putting a lot of pressure on her.
So, the ingredients for a sparkly rom-com are in place: plucky heroine in need of a self-esteem boost after some romantic stumbles meets Prince Charming who uniquely appreciates the real her. And there’s even a chance to give bit parts to an array of handsome and talented actors as the exes.
The problem is that the gaping disconnect between the movie’s view of Ally as an adorable heroine and Faris’ game attempt to play her that way quickly collide with the inescapable unpleasantness of the characters and their actions. Ally swears she will not have sex with anyone else and then gets drunk, gives her engaged sister a mean-spirited and crude toast, and sleeps with her finger-smelling ex-boss (don’t ask). As a teen, when her boyfriend was away, Ally promised to wait until he returned so they could be each other’s first time. Then for no reason she impetuously has sex with a random dweeb just so we can see Andy Samberg with braces on his teeth and a puppet on his hand, making weird sounds while she looks bored. This might be an interesting movie if Ally was an unashamed advocate of sex for pleasure or if she acknowledged that her past behavior was trashy and self-destructive. Instead it seems a sad relic of the discredited “every player gets a trophy” school of self-esteem. Evans tries to make up for his character’s complete absence of any personality beyond running out on his one-night stands and taking off his clothes but there’s only so much anyone can do with this material.
The set-ups are weak: Anthony Mackie plays an ex who is a closeted gay man. Martin Freeman (“Love Actually”) is an ex whose English accent inspired Ally to lie about who she was and pretend to be English, too. Faris’ real-life husband Chris Pratt (“Moneyball”) is engaged to someone else and thinks their accidental encounters mean she is stalking him. The resolutions of all of these encounters are even weaker.
Ally is self-absorbed without having any self-respect, and the same can be said of the film. It is depressingly unaware of its own failure to give us one reason to care about a girl who does not seem to care about anyone but herself. It is sad to think that this miserable mess was inflicted on Faris — and us — by a female novelist and two female screenwriters. Anna Faris is beautiful, smart, funny, and fearless. Is it that hard to write her a comedy that lets her show it?
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.