I once had someone ask me if it's true that you need to have suffered a lot in life to become a good writer. My answer to her was no, but I wasn't at all convincing, mainly because I hadn't given the matter much thought. Now, I can't claim any great authority on the subject - then or now - but I have been thinking quite a bit about what she said; it was obviously not so much a question as it was a (mis)conception. A quote attributed to Flannery O'Connor goes: "If you've survived adolescence, you have enough to write about for the rest of your life." A good writer doesn't need to have suffered any more than the average person, but they do need to be willing to examine that suffering - which is something the average person isn't willing to do. Take, for instance, mortality. Ask someone who's lost a loved one (which, eventually and one way or another, will be all of us) what it felt like, and they'd probably frantically avoid the subject. Everyone has experienced suffering, but most people are so afraid of it that they'd do anything not to even remember the difficult times they've been through.
And that's why great writing, great stories, and great art always comes from those who aren't afraid.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27, has a girlfriend in Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best friend in Kyle (Seth Rogen), and an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) who is caring for his Alzheimer's-ridden father (Serge Houde). And then one day, he discovers he has cancer - and he has only a 50% chance of survival. He visits a young, inexperienced psychologist named Dr. Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick), and during his chemotherapy sessions he befriends fellow cancer patients Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer). But he has no idea how to cope with the awful truth of his condition - and neither do some of the people around him.
I gotta say, I was somewhat disappointed with this movie for much of its first half. It was funny, and not stupid-funny but true-to-life-funny; nothing to really dislike, to be honest. It just all felt a little facile. Which is still forgivable, given that the film's stated approach is to deal with a Drama Minggu Ini-ish premise with humour rather than clichéd sentimentality. Slightly less forgivable is its portrayal of Rachael, who (SPOILER ALERT) does not prove up to the challenge of caring for a boyfriend with a life-threatening illness. I wish Will Reiser's screenplay hadn't made her such a two-dimensional bitch; not only callous and insensitive, but also needy and manipulative. Every other character is treated warmly and with generous empathy, except for her. I put up that spoiler alert because it's probably better if you don't already know how her subplot will turn out, but really, she's just pretty dislikable from the beginning.
But it got much better later on. Before, Adam was mostly baffled and nonplussed at living with his cancer, and the various humourous indignities it subjects him to. When he gradually comes to the realization that he might really die, it becomes incredibly poignant. This film is an almost-autobiographical account of Reiser's real-life battle with cancer, which accounts for its raw sincerity and honesty - and he has a great director in Jonathan Levine, who achieves that delicate balance of comedy and drama. The former being superbly effective, and effectively honed, at achieving the emotional depths of the latter; those tears welling in your eyes during the second half wouldn't have been there if you hadn't been laughing during the first. And make no mistake, this movie is a tear-jerker - especially if you've known someone who had cancer. The good news is, those tears are well-earned.
What made the biggest impression on me was Adam's struggles to cope with his illness - which is simply impossible. How do you go on like that? How do you live under the sword of a disease that leaves you with a 50% chance of survival, that threatens to cut your life short at the age of 27? You can't - not without suffering a harrowing emotional ordeal, and at least one nervous breakdown like Adam does, in an amazingly well-acted and well-directed scene. You see, Adam has a largely very good life: beautiful girlfriend, faithful best friend, a job he's passionate about, a loving mother, and the few issues he has (said mother being overly-concerned, being somewhat neurotic) are the mundane quirks of a normal, well-adjusted person. All of which is turned upside down; the more he sinks into depression, the more he lashes out, cruelly, at those closest to him and those who are only trying to help.
Who have no idea how to deal with it either. What this film makes clear is how difficult it is to deal with cancer, both for the sufferer as well those around him. The laddish, party-dude Kyle tries to take Adam's mind off it, only to be accused of being insensitive (which he isn't, as revealed in a beautiful moment). Adam's mother offers him all the care and concern she can give, only for him to see her as a nuisance. Katherine tries to give him professional treatment while maintaining a professional detachment, only for him to deride her efforts. (Rachael simply can't handle it; she keeps up a charade of love and affection only to assuage her own guilt.) And how could you blame Adam for all this, when he is the one facing death? But in the pivotal moment when his survival is about to be decided, he reaches out - he acknowledges each of his loved ones, and he offers a gesture of love to his long-neglected father. It does not make his ordeal any easier; it is simply an act of selfless kindness, an act that he thinks may be the last thing he'll ever do.
With a cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and that includes Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston and Philip Baker Hall, it almost goes without saying that the acting is terrific. But two things need to be said: one, Gordon-Levitt really is fantastic, and him being in it is reason enough to watch this movie. Two, Seth Rogen is very good as well, providing most of the laughs but also being much more than just the comic relief. He's Reiser's close friend in real life and really did help him through his cancer, so he's playing himself in more ways than one. And seeing as Reiser survived to write this screenplay, it isn't exactly unpredictable how it ends. But there's a lovely, almost ambiguous note to it (the last line of dialogue is "Now what?") that reflects Reiser's eschewal of the neat, Hollywood-style happy ending. And the entire film reflects his willingness to delve honestly into the most harrowing time of his life, and find both the humour and the pathos in it. No, you don't need to have had cancer to write a story like this - you just need to explore your pain, relive it, drag it out into the light and onto the page or the screen. And that takes courage.
NEXT REVIEW: TBC