When comedy writer Will Reiser got cancer, said actor Seth Rogen, it made his old friend a much better person. “He became much less annoying,” Rogen said.
“It’s true,” Reiser agreed. “And it made Seth less of a jerk.”
The abusive/affectionate back-and-forth is part of the brickwork of “50/50,” the “cancer comedy” arriving Friday, written by Reiser, produced and starring Rogen and with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Reiser stand-in, Adam. A worrisome sort, Adam is a young man who jogs, works at a public radio station in Seattle and worries a lot about the small stuff ― at least until he gets sick. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I recycle,” he says, not quite understanding how he ever got the tumor which ― as the title implies ― he has only even odds of beating.
“I was writing for the ‘Ali G’ show with Will,” said Rogen, referring to the old Sacha Baron Cohen cable program, “and he got cancer. We had become good friends, being the youngest writers, I guess, and we joked about it all the time.” Rogen says it probably wasn’t the best way to deal with it, “but that’s what we did. And we’d also talk about what kind of movie this would make. Most movies that deal with cancer are sad and depressing, which is not what we experienced.”
Cancer in the movies has not, traditionally, been a mechanism of feel-good comedy (or, as “50/50” advertises itself, a “feel-better” comedy). One thinks of Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment,” Susan Sarandon in “Stepmom,” James Caan in “Brian’s Song” and ― flashback ― Ali MacGraw in “Love Story.” The closest cancer comes to being funny was via Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in “The Bucket List.”
Bryce Dallas Howard (left) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star in “50/50.” (Summit Entertainment/MCT)
“We were going to call ours ‘The (Expletive) List,’” said Reiser, who’s been cancer-free for six years. “We were 24, 25, and we didn’t really know how to deal with it. We were comedy writers, so the way we dealt with it was to make jokes. We sort of talked about how absurd it was, how weird the whole thing was; we definitely found a lot of humor in the situation. That’s not to say it wasn’t a difficult time. It was just our lack of ability to talk about anything on an emotional level.”
“50/50” also co-stars Anjelica Huston, as Adam’s overprotective and panicky mother; Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”) as Adam’s young and inexperienced cancer counselor, and Dallas Bryce Howard ― who seems to be making a habit of playing unpleasant or untrustworthy women (“The Help,” “Hereafter”) ― as Adam’s faithless girlfriend, whom Rogen’s character, Kyle, takes an almost gleeful satisfaction in calling on the carpet. “Those were my favorite scenes,” Rogen said.
Those scenes were directed by Jonathan Levine, whose films include “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” “The Wackness” and now “50/50.” It’s quite a resume: a slasher film, a drug-themed indie and now a cancer comedy.
“The three tried-and-true genres,” Levine said with a laugh. “But partly what I liked about it is, it’s not a genre and what I like to do are things you sort of haven’t seen before. It’s kind of a scary thing to do, but Will wrote this amazing script, and I always had a lot of faith in it, and I really wanted to work with Seth and Evan (Goldberg, the film’s producer). Once we started making it, that faith grew exponentially each day, especially watching Joe and what he was doing.”
Gordon-Levitt said he never felt any reservations about playing Adam, even though the character’s inspiration ― Reiser himself ― was on the set every day. “No, it was really nothing but helpful because having him there allowed me to push it and take risks and feel confident in my choices,” the actor said. “I would tell him when something didn’t feel right, and he would tell me when it didn’t seem right.”
Currently shooting the next Batman movie (“The Dark Knight Rises”), Gordon-Levitt compared the experience to making the military-themed “Stop-Loss” (2008), when they had real soldiers on the set. And he said the authenticity of the story has moved audiences ― at least the audiences in Toronto, where “50/50” premiered at the recent film festival.
“People stood up,” he said. “It’s a real crowd pleaser, and I think that stems from it being honest. It’s not trying to just make you laugh or just be sentimental. It’s this guy’s honest account of what he went through.”
Reiser emphasizes that the movie is not, strictly speaking, autobiography. “I fictionalized my experience,” he said. “I drew upon what happened to me and stories people shared with me. I didn’t want it to be autobiographical. I never wanted anyone to feel it was my story.”
It seems unlikely they would. Who, after all, hasn’t been affected, firsthand or second, by cancer?
“It’s weird,” said Levine, who’s gone through the cancer experience with two family members. “Until you’re sort of indoctrinated into this world, you’re not aware how pervasive it is. And once you are, you realize that everyone has a personal experience ― someone close to them or themselves. And in pop culture and art, there’s not a lot to tell you that your experience is shared. So it was nice we’re able to let people who’ve gone through these situations know that they’re not alone.”
By John Anderson
(MCT Information Services)