As frightening as the word is, you don't put cancer in a movie's title if you want people to come see it.
Thus, the serio-comic I'm With Cancer was renamed 50/50. Those are our hero's odds of surviving the malignancy that he has just found on his back. As Adam, Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes the news the way most human beings would — like a punch to the gut. No hysteria, no wild weeping. Just shock.
It's his friends, his mom and the therapist whom the hospital puts him in touch with who can't figure out how to react.
"You're young," his pal (Seth Rogen) says. "Young people beat cancer all the time." Celebrities, too.
"Lance Armstrong, Patrick Swayze ..." Uh oh.
The film, written by Rogen's real-life cancer-survivor friend Will Reiser, has a marvelous humanity and reality to it, even if it fails to take us anyplace we don't anticipate going. And it's funny.
Adam and Kyle (Rogen), two 20-something public-radio news producers, banter and comically struggle to find a footing to talk about this awful thing that one of them is going through.
But Adam, like any movie buff, has the solution for how he'll break this news to his worrywart mom (Anjelica Huston): "Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?"
Reiser's script, directed by Jonathan Levine, zeroes in on Adam, how he copes with both a lethal illness and those who cannot cope with him — his less-than-upstanding girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his pixie of a therapist, played by Up in the Air Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick.
Kendrick has made this first-job-and-not-a-clue-how-to-do-it type her specialty. She clumsily touches Adam's arm to comfort him, which he says "is like getting slapped by a sea otter." She brushes that off.
"I'm sensing some anger, which is good."
Their scenes together are the best things in this out-of-balance movie. The men are better written than the women, and the women are often "types." Huston doesn't have a big enough role to make an impact, and Rogen's unfiltered coarseness — the guy would be mute if he couldn't drop F-bombs — has become overly familiar. Not that he isn't funny.
"It's just cancer. It's not contagious!"
Because he's mimicking his own reaction to the screenwriter's real-life cancer battle, there's reality to his outrage, panic and protectiveness of his friend. Kyle is the ultimate wingman. He wants to get Adam a little sympathy sex. From somebody. Adam's not sure he has a shot. "I look like ... Voldemort."
The other wonderful scenes place the young cancer patient in the company of dying old men, led by Philip Baker Hall and the underused Matt Frewer. They aren't giving stupid, unsolicited advice, asking unwelcome questions. They're sitting back, talking about the benefits of medical marijuana and taking their chemo like men, which is what Adam should do. The movie's pathos comes from these moments.
We've seen Howard play the heavy before, in The Help. And we've seen Kendrick do a variation of this youngster trying to learn empathy on the job. But as on-the-nose as their casting is, this story makes them understandable, sympathetic and interesting.
It's not the first word on cancer comedies (any more than Rogen's earlier Adam Sandler dramedy, Funny People), and it won't be the last. But odds are you'll find something of substance, a few life lessons, between the laughs in 50/50.