Characters with terminal illnesses are a movie cliché of epic proportions. They may even have a support group we don’t know about. When the illness is cancer, what could have otherwise been a poignant, enjoyable film immediately invokes groans. The doctor enters the room with those tragic test results, shaking his head in dismay, and this new plot development begins to eat away at all the good parts of the film that came before until they’re destroyed, acting like some kind of… cancer. And yet in the history of cinema there have been at least 460 movies made involving this subject.
Though most movies that don’t want to die a slow, painful death at the box office these days steer away from the cancer plot (excepting anything written by Nicholas Sparks), there have been a few who dared to not only make an enjoyable cancer movie, but to do it with some humor. And this is perfectly reasonable because humor rhymes with tumor.
And I know you’re probably thinking, what about Philadelphia? That movie was hilarious. But contrary to popular belief, AIDS is not cancer.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a normal 27-year-old guy with a job, a hot girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), goofy best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), an overbearing mom (Angelica Huston) and a father with Alzheimer’s. Then Adam finds out he has a tumor on his spine and his chance of survival is 50 percent. Let the gut-busting antics begin!
Adam and Kyle attempt to shave Adam’s head with some inappropriate clippers normally reserved for Kyle’s nether-region. When they start to realize how bad an idea it was to cut the hair themselves, Kyle asks in near-hysterics, “Why wouldn’t we just go to a barber?”
In most cancer movies, especially the ones on Lifetime, the world is full of butterflies and sugar and rainbows at the beginning. Once the character is diagnosed, it’s all chemo, puking, hair loss, lots of crying, and it all goes to hell in a handbasket.
The great thing about Adam is that his life changes, and does in fact get pretty unpleasant, but he still tries to behave like everything is normal. He has inappropriate thoughts about his pretty, young therapist (Anna Kendrick) and with Kyle’s encouragement uses his disease to try to get laid at the bars. What this movie understands where others don’t is that people with cancer don’t instantly become saints.
Will Reiser wrote the screenplay based on his own experience and it shows in the best way possible. Gordon-Levitt’s Adam is three-dimensionally complicated in the emotion he portrays, but so are the supporting characters. Yes, even Seth Rogen. Although with the amount of medical marijuana he probably smoked on set, it’s more like four-dimensional.
Another true story, Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) works a dead-end job as a file clerk, his second wife leaves him, and he has a debilitating vocal impediment. The two things that keep him going are his collections: jazz records and comic books. After becoming friends with animator Robert Crumb, Harvey finds himself inspired to write his own type of comic book, the depressing yet amusing events of his own life. Oh yeah, and he eventually gets testicular cancer.
Joyce (Hope Davis), a woman Harvey has just met in person for the first time, says “I think we should skip the whole courtship thing and just get married.” He accepts. She also sprints to the bathroom to puke after their first kiss. Of course this all happens after Harvey tells her, “I think you should know right off the bat I had a vasectomy.” I think that’s the same way Prince William proposed to Kate.
This film won about a dozen awards when it was released back in 2003 including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and it’s easy to see why. Not only is it a fascinating story about a weird guy with talent, but the method of execution manages to be unique as well. The real Harvey narrates and makes appearances along with the real Joyce and his coworker Toby, in a way that leaves documentary overlapping with biopic.
The cancer aspect works primarily due to the filmmaker’s decision not to dwell on it for an extended period, but also because of the humor involved. Harvey finds a lump but is too afraid to go to the doctor until his wife returns home from her two weeks in Jerusalem. Finally, she does return only to grab his package and ask in surprise, “Harvey, what the hell is that?” In the end, he manages to get through it the way he got through the other negatives in his life-by turning it into a comic.
I know, I know, this is technically two movies. But they’re both directed by Jason Reitman, also of Juno fame. One is about a man who may be an accessory to the lung cancer found in millions of people; the other doesn’t actually contain as much cancer as the source material called for, and for that reason is worth talking about.
Aaron Eckhart and George Clooney are miserable middle-aged men who think they’re just fine, at least at first. For a living, Eckhart sells the country on the idea that nicotine isn’t as bad for you as everybody wants you to think. He has a son who begins to slowly leach the lobbyist’s techniques to manipulate the people around him. Clooney’s job is to fly to different cities and fire people. He prides himself on having no attachment to people in order to succeed and even gives motivational speeches on the topic. They both feel they deserve to have cancer.
Thank You For Smoking- Any scene involving the “MOD Squad” (short for Merchants of Death), the lobbyists for tobacco, firearms, and alcohol respectively, is good for a laugh. But the scene in which Eckhart talks to a film producer about product placement for cigarettes and they plan to have astronauts smoking in space is just ridiculous enough to be based in truth.
Up in the Air- The funniest cancer scene happens when Clooney’s character is on an airplane. He hears the flight attendant ask if he would like “the cancer.” After a confusing exchange, he realizes she was only saying, “Would you like the can, sir?”
The twist in the novel version of Up in the Air by Walter Kirn [Spoiler] is that Bingham the protagonist has prostate cancer and has been travelling to the Mayo Clinic. Perhaps the reason the movie worked so well is that Bingham isn’t threatened by his impending death any more than on a level of being middle aged and alone.
Thank You For Smoking’s cancer criteria concentrates on a supporting character, the former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliot). He is dying of cancer, which has motivated him to campaign against his former profession. Eckhart’s job is to buy him off, and he does so by appealing to his humanity and love for his family, an emotion even a tobacco lobbyist can relate to. Although maybe if Eckhart had offered a million Stetsons, Elliot would have caved a lot sooner.
The premise is perfect for comedy: After his wife dies, Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay at 75. Oliver (Ewan McGreggor) has to figure out how to deal with this news and his father’s many lifestyle changes, for instance answering questions like what is house music? When Hal finds out he has terminal cancer, it is certainly heartbreaking, but there are funny moments as well. They sneak wine into the hospital. There’s a dog who communicates with Oliver and the audience via subtitles. Plummer has a much-younger boyfriend (daddy issues) who overreacts dramatically when told he can’t spend the night at the hospital. Like some of the other movies on this list, the film’s realism accentuates its comedy.
Though possibly more sweet than laugh out loud funny, there are almost too many scenes to choose from. A hospice nurse spikes up Hal’s hair with gel. Hal’s much younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) easily admits he has always been attracted to much older men because of his daddy issues. Oliver’s relationship with a woman named Anna (Melanie Laurent) is full of amusing moments. The night they meet, she has laryngitis and scribbles everything to him on a notepad, but her muteness doesn’t stop her from calling him after they part.
Plummer perfectly encompasses the sense of awe apt to come with beginning a new life, even at an advanced age, while McGreggor portrays both the difficulty and the joy in discovering and accepting who is father truly is. The story jumps back and forth in time, from the past when Hal is alive, to the future when Oliver meets Anna, and both storylines manage to weigh equally in both comedy and poignancy. And did I mention there is a talking dog?
An Adam Sandler-esque movie star finds out he has leukemia and with that knowledge decides to start doing standup comedy again. This inspires the darkest set of his career, which Ira (Seth Rogen) makes fun of in his follow-up set, getting himself a job in the process. Through everything, Sandler tries to improve his lonely life by apologizing for some of the wrongs in his life, like cheating on his ex-wife. The film is full of comedians, and Sandler’s portrayal of a man who wants to change but maybe can’t, is real and laugh-worthy.
Standup is one of the stars of funny people, so comedians featured like Raaaandy (Aziz Ansari) and Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), along with the scenes where Rogen and Sandler riff off of each other, do the best to stand out. As for a single scene, Sandler’s George finds out his diagnosis from an unintelligible German doctor.
Even if Funny People feels a little lengthy toward the end, its importance lies in an accurate and fascinating filmic rendering of the comedy world’s inner workings. George was long ago sucked into a lifestyle he feels forced to maintain (sex with random women, no real friends, spending money) and only the threat of death can jerk him out of it. Yet he still struggles to break out of twenty years of bad habits, and only Ira can put him in his place. Even though the movie ends up being less dark than it started out to be, the film’s autobiographical nature keeps it in an honest place.
When reminiscing about Fight Club, most people probably don’t immediately think “comedy,” but there’s no question humor is present throughout the film. Edward Norton’s character starts going to cancer support groups to cure his insomnia, but before long he’s addicted to attending. He meets Marla and realizes she is lying about having an illness just like he is. Meanwhile, Norton and Tyler (Brad Pitt) start an underground society where men release their anger on each other’s faces. This soon snowballs into something bigger and darker, including a terrorist attack.
Here’s an exact quote from one of the scenes where Norton sits in on a cancer support group.
Narrator: Oh, yeah, Chloe… Chloe looked the way Meryl Streep’s skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around the party being extra nice to everybody.
Chloe: Well, I’m still here. But I don’t know for how long. That’s as much certainty as anyone can give me. But I’ve got some good news: I no longer have any fear of death. But… I am in a pretty lonely place. No one will have sex with me. I’m so close to the end, and all I want is to get laid for the last time. I have pornographic movies in my apartment, and lubricants, and amyl nitrite…
Group Leader: (takes the mic) Thank you, Chloe… everyone, let’s thank Chloe.
Exploiting terminal cancer victims isn’t the most heroic of qualities, and yet we’re left finding Norton’s character easy to identify with. Of course, the movie works primarily on its adrenaline and multiple twists, but Pitt and Norton play their characters so convincingly, it’s impossible not to be surprised by the ending. Even though Norton does not have cancer, he has mental problems that could arguably be considered worse than the big C. Like beating the crap out of himself.