“50/50” screenwriter Will Reiser didn’t have to look far for the inspiration for the new big screen comedy/drama co-produced by his pal Seth Rogen. The film, now in theaters, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a Seattle public radio producer who is diagnosed with a “neurofibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma.” Roughly translated, Adam has a cancerous tumor the size of a small Buick nestled against his spinal column. It’s a scenario that Rogen, who plays Adam’s best pal Kyle in the film, and Reiser dealt with in real life while working on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show” when Reiser was handed a very similar diagnosis.
“When I was sick, we discussed the idea of a cancer movie,” Reiser recalls while crashed at a conference table next to Rogen at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. “A comedy that felt real and true to the experience. But I didn’t actually start outlining the movie until a year later. I needed to put it in the rearview mirror for a bit. But Seth and [co-producer] Evan Goldberg really urged me to write about it.” Reiser even loaned the MRIs of his monstrous tumor for Gordon-Levitt’s character’s hospital scenes. In one of the film’s most cringe-worthy sequences, a doc with zero bedside manner spouts out a lot of medical jargon to Adam as he’s informing the 27-year-old he has a life-threatening tumor. Reiser says he had more than one doctor like the one in his script. “But I found out, the bigger the dick the better the doctor,” Reiser says as Rogen’s trademark belly laugh reverberates across the room. Interjects the comic: “You totally wanted that guy to operate on you too! I mean, if ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ has taught us anything. . .” Adds Reiser: “I had some doctors who were incredibly nice but I had others who treated me like a car in for a tune up.”
Much of the humor in “50/50” came out of Reiser’s experiences as a cancer patient and realizing that none of his 20-something friends, Rogen included, knew what to say or do. “We made fun of the situation,” he says. “But it made us realize that there was no movie out there that accurately portrayed what it was like to be young and go through something like this. Most cancer movies are really overly dramatic, they’re not realistic and the character is a curmudgeon or misanthrope who has some big epiphany at the end and dies. That’s a Hollywood cancer movie.” Adds Rogen: “We only wished that was Will’s story!”
The film’s impressive cast includes Oscar winner Anjelica Huston, playing Adam’s overprotective mother, Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick as Adam’s adorable therapist and Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays his artist girlfriend who cheats on him while he’s going through chemotherapy. Due to the magic of Hollywood release dates, “50/50” is Ron Howard‘s daughter’s follow up to “The Help,” the summer hit where she played racist Hilly Holbrook, who notably had an outdoors bathroom constructed for her maid in the film. We asked Rogen and Reiser if they’re at all worried about snuffing Dallas Howard’s career with a lethal one-two punch of villainous roles. “Right?!” assesses Rogen. “She’s like the [“Inglourious Basterds” actor] Christoph Waltz of the movie!” Adds Reiser: “I do feel like we kind of need to find a nice part for her now.” Riffs Rogen: “I’m writing a Mother Teresa bio pic for her.” Counters Reiser: “She’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet but she does love playing those kinds of roles. She loves picking apart the psychology of someone in that position.”
Reiser and Rogen, meanwhile, have described “Up in the Air” Oscar nominee Kendrick as the sunshine of their cancer comedy. “Anna is the lightness in this film,” says Reiser. Adds Rogen: “That first scene she’s in with Joe in her office? You can actually hear a sigh of relief from the audience. Mostly, I think it’s the relief of discovering that I’m not the only supporting character in the film.”