(2011) Dramedy (Summit) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer, Serge Houde, Andrew Airlie, Donna Yamamoto, Sugar Lyn Beard, Yee Jee Tso, Sarah Smyth. Directed by Jonathan Levine
Cancer is a terrifying disease. It brings forth visions of chemotherapy, radiation, hair falling out, nausea and wasting away until death. It is a punishing, painful, horrible disease that kills slowly; it is Guantanamo Bay among diseases.
Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt) is 26 years old. He has a girlfriend that he’s just getting serious about – the beautiful Rachael (Howard) – a decent job producing features for NPR in Seattle, and Kyle (Rogen), a great friend that keeps Adam grounded. Adam rarely drinks, doesn’t smoke, jogs and exercises regularly and has his entire life ahead of him.
He also has nagging back pain so he goes to the Doctor (Airlie) to check it out. Thinking he’s going to get a prescription for some pain medication or a regimen of stretching exercises, he almost can’t process what he really does get – a diagnosis for a rare form of cancer on his spine. The tumor is too large to safely remove it surgically; Adam is going to have to undergo chemotherapy to reduce it before it can be taken out. It’s going to be a long, painful road to recovery – assuming he survives at all. According to the Internet, he has a 50/50 shot at surviving.
The cancer affects all of Adam’s friends and family in different ways. His overwrought mom (Huston) who is already caring for Adam’s dad (Houde) who is in the throes of Alzheimer’s Disease, wants to move in and care for Adam. Rogen wants to keep Adam’s spirits up and use his disease as a means to pick up girls. And Rachael? Her nurturing side seems to be out in full force but there are some deer-in-the-headlight moments. There is also Katherine (Kendrick), Adam’s pretty but inexperienced therapist. Even though Kyle reassures Adam that if he were a casino game he’d have the best odds, Adam is fully aware that he has the same chance at dying as he does at living.
The movie is based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, who underwent a very similar ordeal contracting a rare form of cancer as a young man. He got through it largely with the help of his best friend in real life – Seth Rogen, who urged him to put his experience down as a screenplay. It sure makes one look at Rogen differently.
One of the things I admired about the movie is that it didn’t make Adam a heroic martyr facing his disease with dignity. No, instead it puts him through all the stages of dealing with the disease from denial to rage. Adam is at times overwhelmed by his situation and lashes out. It helps that Gordon-Levitt imbues the character with an inner decency and kindness, leading the audience to form a real bond with the character and a rooting interest for him to beat the disease. Some are calling this Oscar-caliber acting and I can’t say as I disagree.
There are strong performances all throughout the cast, including Frewer and Hall as fellow cancer patients of Adam’s who share weed-laced macaroons and the wisdom – and gallows humor – of facing a deadly disease. Katherine is chipper and unconfident in her abilities, making her a winning and sweet character and Kendrick excels at that sort of thing. Howard gets a thankless role that she runs with; it is one of several that she’s played this year in which she’s served notice that she’s a talent to be reckoned with and one whose performances I look forward to.
Rogen however is at his best here. Yes, the role is not unlike those he’s played before in Judd Apatow movies but obviously this is a part that means something to him personally. One wonders how hard it must have been for Rogen to re-enact what had to be some very painful moments in his life. It’s a terrific performance and I hope a sign that Rogen is going to rise above some of the stereotypes he’s created for himself in his career.
This is a movie that will have you riding an emotional roller coaster. It’s wickedly funny in places and in others, you’ll be reaching for the hankie. There’s one scene where Adam, who has been doing his best to hold it together, finally falls apart in Kyle’s car; another where he finally cries on his mother’s shoulder after doing his best to hold her at arm’s length. Both are amazing scenes and both will have you more than a little misty.
It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to label this a “feel-good movie about cancer” but that’s about as close a description as I can get to it. Some people might be turned off about a cancer movie, thinking it too grim and emotionally wrenching but let me assure you, this is as far from grim as you can get. It’s a celebration of life and survival and in these times, we can all use a little bit of that.
REASONS TO GO: An unblinking, often poignant and irreverently funny look at dealing with cancer. Gordon-Levitt and Rogen give terrific performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of foul language, some sexuality and the usage of “medicinal” marijuana.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which Adam mentions that among the things he’s never done is visit Canada was filmed…in Canada.
HOME OR THEATER: This has the intimacy of a movie best seen at home where nobody can see you cry.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: The Names of Love
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