Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

How Do You Make a Good "Cancer Comedy"?

The trailer for Seth Rogen's upcoming 50/50 dropped this week, and the film, based on Rogen pal Will Reiser's real-life struggle with cancer, seems to beg the question: how can comedies successfully "do" life-threatening illnesses without being, well, horrible? What is the best way to craft a comedy with heart that isn't so coated in saccharine it gets covered in (metaphorical) bees, but also isn't "Porky's with chemotherapy?"

Terminal illness has long been a staple of dramas and rom-coms; I will throw down for Stepmom forever and always, not so much Kate Hudson's A Little Bit Of Heaven (though based on the film, I would argue that Whoopi Goldberg should also be God in real life). Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal's Love & Other Drugs vacillated wildly between a touching, illness-centric drama a la Love Story, and a slap-sticky comedy starring their butts. Over on TV, Laura Linney's The Big C goes after cancer via the dry, sardonic route, though the over-all tone remain serious. As Newsweek put it, "The Big C is, essentially, a half-hour drama with some quippy dialogue."

The real fear about "cancer comedy" is that, once a film gets coated with too much syrup, it tends to promptly pitch headfirst in a shallow pool of it and drown. Even if a movie's jokes tend toward gallows humor, plenty of well-meaning filmmakers botch the precarious balancing act required by a protagonist that is starring into the abyss, even as their hospital gown gapes comically open in the back. Exhibit A: "Patch Adams made me want to spray the screen with Lysol. This movie is shameless. It's not merely a tearjerker. It extracts tears individually by liposuction, without anesthesia," Roger Ebert raged upon the film's release. "If this guy broke into my hospital room and started tap-dancing with bedpans on his feet, I'd call the cops." As for The Bucket List…well, let's just say if you're going to watch it, please remember to bring a bucket. That being said, Mike Sampson's 50/50 review over at JoBlo is a rave one, claiming the film is "intensely emotional and raw while also being extremely funny and romantic…50/50 holds its own and creates a winning film about cancer and how it affects those diagnosed with the disease and everyone around them. And yes, you'll cry." Well, I would hope so. This isn't Jake Gyllenhaal's bare ass we're talking about here.

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  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    What did you think about "Funny People"? Besides needlessly going on for an extra 45 minutes after Sandler becomes cancer free, I thought that was a pretty decent movie.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harry-Cheadle/17401764 Harry Cheadle

      @Joshua Ungerleider Yeah, that was a pretty good movie, if not all about cancer. I like that Sandler [SPOILER] doesn't magically become a great guy after his cancer goes away, but that whole plot with his love interest dragged everything down.

  • iamjustryingtolive

    This movie looks fantastic. I've watched the trailer a few times and was pleasantly relieved at Rogen and JGL's chemo (uh, chemistry).
    @JoshuaUngerleider, I wanted so much to believe that all of Sandler's dick jokes and "immature" humor were his character not being able to relate to people and copping out of real emotion by making a crass joke. That gave George a lot of depth, for me at least. Nothing beats "Yo Teach" and Eric Bana steals the movie from the moment he enters ("small fuckas big fuckas"). Lastly, the comedy in Funny People never really dealt with the cancer as it appears to in 50/50. And FP has amazing soundtrack!

  • Lindsay Graham@facebook

    Author, please see: http://begthequestion.info/

  • http://www.videocarpenter.com Jeff Carpenter

    I'm calling it now: They will randomly release 2 versions at the same time. One where he lives and one where he doesn't. If I'm wrong then they should totally rip me off and do it before it's too late.

  • Boarcano@twitter

    "Wit" (starring a marvelous Emma Thompson) is the greatest cancer comedy movie.
    "Breaking Bad" is the greatest cancer comedy tv show.