Black List Script #9 – I’m with Cancer (a.k.a., 50/50) by Will Reiser
MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Since these scripts, bought or not, are currently unproduced and/or in the midst of long, tedious development processes, they may not make it to the screen for up to three years, if ever. You should know that the synopsis contains MASSIVE, EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS, even though this screenplay may not resemble the finished film (if any) in any way. Read at your own risk.
Secondary Disclaimer: I refer to what follows as “coverage” by the loosest definition of that term. In keeping with this blog’s tradition, I’ve crammed the notes so full of rancorous rants, it’s 1/10th as concise as actual coverage, almost falling into the category of a review. However, since I’ve included the loglines and a detailed synopsis, it’s close enough to coverage for my purposes. Deal with it.
Logline (provided by The Black List): “A autobiographical comic account of one man’s struggle to beat cancer.”
On a gorgeous San Diego day, ADAM SCHWARTZ (26) is forced to go to the hospital. A receptionist who treats Adam like dirt gives him a gown to get into, and he’s greeted by JOANNE, a cheery nurse leading around a group of students who observe his behavior. She gives Adam a sample cup for urine — he has trouble with that. By the time he gets through the lengthy process of a full-body X-Ray and MRI, Adam has to pee. The next day, Adam’s alarm clock/white noise machine goes off. Adam finds himself unable to turn it off — it merely switches from a braying alarm to various forms of white noise. This wakes his girlfriend, RACHEL, who’s irritated by it. By the time she gets it off, he’s fully awake. She runs her fingers through his hair and spots a gray one. Adam freaks out and investigates it in the bathroom. He smiles when he finds it.
After showering using Rachel’s shampoo/body-wash, Adam is picked up by his longtime best friend, SETH (25), who rolls down the windows to get rid of the girly scent. Waiting in line at a coffee shop, single Seth wonders why a couple ahead of them can’t keep their hands off each other. Adam laments that he and Rachel used to be that way, but the relationship has slowed down. Adam thinks Rachel is waiting for him to take the next step by asking her to move in. Seth suggests Adam dump Rachel, but Adam loves her. Seth doesn’t care — Adam’s good-looking and could get laid easily. To prove it, Seth asks the gay baristas if they’d sleep with Adam, given the opportunity. They’re all enthusiastic.
Adam and Seth go to work at the San Diego Museum of Natural History, where Adam is the nerdy intellectual obsessed with historical accuracy, Seth is apathetic, and their friend GREG is the kind of idiot who puts a velociraptor fossil into a diorama of early man because people like dinosaurs. Later, Adam returns to the hospital, where DR. ROSS has the results of his tests: he has a malignant tumor as the result of a rare gene mutation. Dr. Ross claims it’s risky to operate on, so he wants Adam to start chemotherapy ASAP. When Adam starts freaking out, Dr. Ross suggests Adam start seeing a psychologist to help him work through this experience. Adam goes to the public library to use the Internet, where he looks up more about his specific cancer: “Neurofibrosarcoma Schwannoma.”
At home, Rachel has made a meal of vegetarian goulash. She’s cute and perky and alarmed by how unenthusiastic Adam is. When she asks what’s wrong, Adam gently broaches the subject by asking if she’s seen the movie Beaches. Once Rachel puts together that Adam has cancer, she’s upset and a little terrified — even more when Adam remembers his parents are coming for dinner. EDITH (a bundle of overbearing energy) and ART (a little strange and not quite himself since suffering a stroke 10 years ago) arrive. Edith is immediately unimpressed with the goulash, specifically its lack of meat. Adam tries to break the news to Edith and Art by asking if they’ve seen Terms of Endearment. Rachel tells him just to come out with it. Adam does, and Edith panics. She goes to make him green tea, citing the belief that it reduces the risk of getting cancer. When Adam notes that he already has cancer, she pulls a wide variety of pills out of her fanny pack — none of which have a thing to do with cancer treatment — and tries to convince him to take them. She wants to move in, but Adam talks her out of it. Rachel chimes in that she understands how Edith must feel, but she’ll take care of Adam.
At the coffee shop, Seth ogles a woman while Adam impatiently waits for Greg to decide what he’s going to order. Seth wonders why Adam’s suddenly so impatient. Adam tells Seth about the cancer. Seth is hurt that Adam didn’t tell him immediately. On the bright side, Seth realizes Adam can take this time to do everything he always wanted — plus, he’ll get plenty of trim. Adam goes to a therapy session with a young doctor, KATIE (26), who has no apparent sense of humor. In fact, she accuses Adam of repressing his emotions and using humor to mask his fear.
To compensate for the cancer, Rachel buys Adam a gift: a tiny shih-tzu. At first, Adam’s disappointed; then he’s angry, but Rachel guilt-trips him into keeping the dog. The museum workers throw a party for Adam, who will not be able to work during the chemo. Everyone tries to warn/help him, and Adam leaves feeling dejected. Afterward, Rachel reassures Adam that everything will be okay. At home, they attempt to make love, but the dog starts scratching and barking, demanding to be let out. Adam takes the dog for a walk, and when he gets back, Rachel’s already asleep. At their synagogue, Edith uses Adam’s cancer for sympathy points. Their RABBI urges Adam, in his time of crisis, to consider looking toward religion. Adam is disinterested.
At the hospital, Adam watches an outdated cancer-awareness film starring ALAN ALDA, designed to help new patients acclimate to chemotherapy. Waiting for his treatment, Adam meets MITCH (85) and ALAN (84), two cancer patients with different perspectives on life — it can’t end fast enough for Alan, but Mitch hangs on to dear life. They introduce Adam to the wonders of medical marijuana. Adam has a dream. He’s at an amusement park, but the carny won’t let him on a roller coaster because Adam has cancer. Adam tries to deny he has cancer, but the carny points to Adam’s t-shirt, which reads I’M WITH CANCER. Next to him is a huge, bald, fat man with a shirt labeled CANCER and an umbilical cord attached to Adam. Adam wakes in terror and rushes to the bathroom to vomit.
Katie asks Adam how he feels after the first treatment. Adam tells her he doesn’t feel well. At all. Katie tells Adam he needs an outlet for the emotions he’s experiencing. She recommends a list of books to help him deal with it. Adam and Seth go to a bookstore. Seth decides going to Mardi Gras would be a better emotional outlet. Adam has no interest, so Seth decides if Adam won’t use his disease to get laid, Seth will. He continues to hang around the cancer self-help section, where he spots a cute girl and tells her how profoundly affected he has been by his best friend’s cancer.
Adam buys a 50” plasma TV and gets high with Seth. Meanwhile, Rachel is in the process of moving in — boxes everywhere. She yells at Adam for getting high, then yells at him for the placing the TV where she intended to hang one of her paintings. She takes the dog for a walk, and Seth tries to argue with Adam that Rachel’s lack of sympathy suggests she’s not into the relationship, and they should go to Mardi Gras. Adam insists they’re just going through a rough patch.
Adam starts to read some of the books Katie recommended and is surprised that they make sense. Katie’s so excited, she decides to recommend alternate forms of therapy. Seth accompanies Adam to a laughter therapy session, which is strange but effective. A time lapse shows Adam begin to wither as his health deteriorates and his hair falls out. At a chemo session, Mitch asks why he and Alan have never met Rachel. Adam offers that she’s been stressed and bringing her to something like this would just make that worse. Alan thinks women are a waste of time, but Mitch has been married for decades. He shows Adam a photo of his wife. Alan, meanwhile, contends the day his wife left was the best day of his life. Adam considers both points of view.
After his session, Adam waits for Rachel to pick him up, but she never shows. Eventually, Katie sees Adam and offers him a ride home. Her car is cluttered with junk she won’t throw away. Adam explains he never got a driver’s license, because he failed the test by driving into a garden full of endangered plants. Adam makes her stop the car. He throws away her junk for her. When they get to Adam’s house, he invites Kate inside. She refuses, then relents. They play video games until Rachel comes home. She’s not happy to find another woman in the house, even after the explanation. After Katie leaves, Adam and Rachel fight about her not picking him up. Rachel gets sympathy points from Adam because she’s having as difficult a time watching Adam fall apart as Adam is. They try to have sex, but Adam can’t get an erection.
At Adam’s next chemo session, he asks Mitch where Adam is. He passed away. Adam and Mitch attend his funeral. Adam dreams of the afterlife — a Boca Raton retirement community where there’s still a 45-minute wait for frozen yogurt. In his waking life, Adam visits his rabbi to ask about the afterlife. He asks if he’ll go to heaven, and when the rabbi says probably, Adam asks if there’s any way to just die with no afterlife. The rabbi suggests Adam find a new religion. At a therapy session, Adam confesses to Katie his fear that he’ll die. She tells him helplessness is normal. Adam decides therapy isn’t working and leaves. Adam reminds Rachel of his next doctor’s appointment — “the big one.” Rachel ignores him, frustrating Adam. After repeating himself, she promises she’ll be there.
Left alone, Adam is bored out of his mind. He decides to try to go back to work. There, he creates a truly disturbing diorama of Pompeii during the Vesuvius eruption, then passes out. His boss, PHIL, likes and respects him, but they both agree Adam just can’t work until he gets through this. Adam waits for his ride to the doctor, but Rachel doesn’t show up and isn’t answering her phone. Adam tries Seth, who also doesn’t answer. Reluctantly, Adam dials Edith. Edith and Art accompany Adam to the hospital. While they wait, Edith’s nitpicking overwhelms an already-stressed Adam, who blows up at her. Edith tells Adam how difficult things can be — she loved Art more than anything in the world, but since he’s stroke, she’s “lost” him. She’s terrified of losing Adam, too.
Dr. Ross arrives to tell Adam the MRI shows the chemo has been ineffective — the tumor is still growing, and they have to perform a risky operation that could result in lower-body paralysis. Adam and Edith are terrified, but what else can they do? Trying to look on the bright side, Adam asks if he’ll also get handicap parking. Adam comes home to find Rachel has cooked a nice meal. Her phone vibrates with a text message. Adam asks who it’s from, and he doesn’t believe the response. When she sets down the phone, he checks the texting history and finds it’s from a guy named “James,” and many of his texts seem vaguely romantic. As he questions Rachel about this, Adam continues to scroll through, finding a variety of “artistic” nude photos of her. Angered, Adam throws Rachel out of the house.
Seth takes Adam to the Yacht Club, where they get drunk and reminisce. Adam decides he should drive home; despite his lack of license, Seth is too drunk to drive. Also, Adam wants to do something new before he dies. Seth reluctantly gives in, and Adam slams into a statue of Neptune before turning the wrong way down a one-way street. Freaked out, Seth starts to argue with him. Pissed, Adam throws Seth out of the car and sits in the street, where he calls Katie and lets out all these fears. He apologizes for storming out on her. Katie tells him she believes Adam is brave, and Adam suggests going on a date if he doesn’t die. Katie doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Adam passes out while still on the phone. Seth manages to get Adam back to his apartment. As Seth shoves Adam into bed, he notices a book on Adam’s table: Coping with Your Loved One’s Cancer. He’s touched and realizes he had Seth all wrong.
Adam prepares for his funeral — buying a suit, picking out a plot and casket. Dr. Ross schedules his surgery. He goes through the surgery, which is mostly successful — they got the tumor, but they had to remove enough that his mobility is hindered. Katie arrives while Adam is in recovery. Two months later, at a beach house, Mitch’s wife, MARGARET (80), knocks tentatively on the door. A wheelchair-bound but glowing Adam answers the door. He was sad to hear about Mitch but is thrilled she’d come for what may or may not be Thanksgiving dinner. Katie’s inside, playing video games with Seth. Edith serves dinner, and they all gather around.
This script took me by surprise, because my feelings on the other Black List comedies have ranged from utter contempt to mild disappointment. I’m with Cancer isn’t perfect, but it’s second to Big Hole as the best of the top ten. Even if Our Brand Is Crisis unseats it, it’s still in the top three. Not bad.
Reiser does a nice job of laying out the gags. Some of them don’t work, but the conceptual ideas are there. In fact, the museum material surprised me because, in that initial scene, I didn’t feel like the gags about Adam’s nerdiness or Greg’s dinosaur worked at all — but they dole out the necessary setup for Adam’s return to work, in which Adam builds the laugh-out-loud funny Pompeii diorama. Still, the gags that don’t work could use some more polish, but the plot is there, and the characters are mostly there…
I wish Rachel had received a little more development. In a possible unfortunate byproduct of the “based on a true story” aspect of this script, Reiser writes the relationship as very one-sided. I know Adam has cancer, and overall the beats of their disintegrating relationship work dramatically… But Reiser sort of hangs it on, “She cheated on Adam and therefore must move out,” after which she disappears from the story. Despite building it up and tearing it down reasonably well, Reiser doesn’t give us nearly enough of Rachel’s perspective. There is a very slight, subtle suggestion that their relationship isn’t working even before the diagnosis. I wish Reiser had addressed this more, because cheating on a cancer patient without a satisfactory explanation paints her as a monster.
Somehow, though, the way Reiser built the relationship with Katie worked well for me. I didn’t expect it to, but she gets just enough depth and development to remain interesting, and the arc of their relationship feels natural. Same goes for Adam and Seth’s friendship, as well as Adam himself — going from sunny yet cynical to soul-shattering depression. Every change, no matter how subtle, feels natural.
Overall, it’s a comedy with actual, funny scenarios and actual, funny behavior within those scenarios. That’s more than I’ve gotten from any other Black List comedy. Besides that, I’m with Cancer has a certain affable nature that makes it easier to look past its flaws — unlike a wall-to-wall disaster like Butter, I want I’m with Cancer to succeed in spite of the occasional misstep.
The Bottom Line
Going into it, I already knew this was being developed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, but I’d like to think that even if I had no idea, the ramshackle but deceptively complex story has the feel of a Judd Apatow-style comedy. The Rogen/Goldberg pair are a good match for this script, and if anyone can polish the gags that don’t work, it’s them. Hopefully this will turn into a solid movie.
Update, 3/23/09 — A new draft of I’m with Cancer came across my desk today, and I have to say, I still like it. Mainly because it’s the exact same script, with a couple of changed scenes and teensy snippets of new dialogue here and there.
The new scenes change Adam’s job from a museum employee to an NPR producer. Although I sort of bagged on the work scenes from the older draft, I acknowledged that they built to a more-than-satisfying punchline. I just sort of hoped they’d go back and polish or shorten the earlier scenes, not completely change his career. NPR producer is a much lamer endeavor, and Reiser doesn’t come up with much material. In fact, there is no third act “Adam returns to work” punchline. It’s just a rewritten version of the scene where Phil’s uneasy about putting chemo-ravaged Adam back to work — only this time, he tells Adam no. What a stinger!
There’s also one new scene, where Adam and Seth seek medical marijuana from a general practitioner who’s described like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The humor comes from the disparity between the quaint environs and their impure motive for visiting the kindly old doctor. It’s an okay scene, but it doesn’t add a thing to the story and feels tonally out of place — a little too surreal. Then again, maybe the Pompeii diorama that made me laugh out loud was a little too surreal. At least that had something to do with expressing Adam’s blackening mood.