I’m with Cancer (a.k.a., 50/50)

Author: Will Reiser
Genre: Comedy
Storyline: 8
Dialogue: 8
Characterization: 7
Writer’s Potential: 8

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A young radio producer’s life turns upside down when he’s diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.


ADAM ROSEN (25, cheerful yet cynical) goes to the hospital for a physical, where he’s treated horribly by an apathetic receptionist and forced to be a human guinea pig to an audience of medical students. A nurse forces him to fill an enormous jar with urine; after enduring the time-consuming tedium of an X-ray and an MRI, Adam’s ready to fill that jar. The next morning, Adam’s loud, obnoxious alarm clock awakens him and his girlfriend, RACHAEL. Adam keeps pushing random buttons in an attempt to turn it off, but all it does is change the noises or make it louder. Since both of them are wide awake, Adam asks Rachael if she’ll be staying over again tonight. She says she wants to check out some art gallery oepnings, but maybe. As Adam showers, he discovers his shampoo bottle is empty. He hesitates, then uses some of Rachel’s girly shampoo. Hesitating again, Adam uses her body wash. Adam’s best friend, SETH (25), picks Adam up for work and comments on his feminine smell. Waiting in line at a coffee shop, Adam and Seth discuss Adam’s relationship with Rachael. Seth is alarmed to learn that, although they’ve only been dating for four months, they only have sex once every three weeks. He’s even more alarmed that she stays over almost every night, yet won’t move in and won’t have sex. Adam doesn’t want to take advice from Seth, who’s never had an actual, long-term relationship, but that doesn’t stop Seth from encouraging Adam to dump Rachael and find someone better.

Adam and Seth arrive at National Public Radio, where they both work as segment producers. Their creepy boss, PHIL (60), comments on Adam’s scent and gets a little too intimate in smelling him. Phil asks how their current piece is coming along. Adam goes into a lot of unnecessary details that suggest it’s going badly, until Seth cuts him off by telling Phil they’re pretty much done. Phil’s glad, because they need it to air tonight. Taking the job very seriously, Adam attempts to call someone for an interview. The person on the other end thinks Adam is asking for donations. Meanwhile, Seth laughs and makes obnoxious, vaguely racist jokes to whoever he’s interviewing. After work, Adam goes back to the hospital to hear his results. DR. ROSS ignores Adam as he examines the MRI results, spewing medical jargon into a Dictaphone. Ross asks Adam if he has any questions. Adam asks for clarification on everything Ross says. Ross spells it out in laymen’s terms: Adam has a malignant growth on his spinal column that’s the result of a rare genetic mutation. Ross is glad they caught it before it metastasized and sets Adam up for a four-month chemotherapy regimen. Adam starts to panic, so Ross recommends a social worker to help Adam work through this difficult time. Adam Googles his form of cancer. The survival rate, even with treatment, does not look good. Adam comes home and breaks the news to Rachael by asking if she’s ever seen the movie Beaches. At first, Rachael doesn’t get it, but then she puts it together and is appropriately horrified. Rachael makes Adam’s problem mostly about her — how she’s going to get through this, how it’s bad timing, etc. Adam adds insult to injury when he reminds Rachael that his parents are coming for dinner.

EDITH and ART arrive for dinner. Edith is overbearing; Art, who suffered a stroke, is a bit out of touch with reality. After sitting down to dinner, Adam tries to break the news to Edith and Art by asking if they’ve seen Terms of Endearment. Rachael tells Adam just to come out with it. Adam tells them he has cancer. Art has no reaction, but Edith freaks out and immediately begins brewing green tea, because she heard it reduces the chances of getting cancer. Adam says it’s a little late for that, so Edith opens up her fanny pack and offers Art an array of over-the-counter painkillers and prescription antidepressants. She insists on moving in, and Adam tries to forbid it but fails. Rachael manages to calm Edith down enough to make her realize that Rachael will take care of Adam. Edith tells Adam he doesn’t deserve Rachael.

The next morning, at the coffee shop, Adam is too impatient to tolerate the long line. Seth asks what his problem is, so Adam tells him about the cancer. At first, Seth doesn’t believe him, but after that, he’s surprisingly compassionate. He also adds that now is the time for Adam to live it up. Rachael drives Adam to the hospital, where he meets with KATIE MacRAE (24), the inexperienced psychologist who will act as Adam’s social worker. Adam’s surprised by her youth, and even more surprised when Katie tells him he’s her first patient and that their sessions will comprise most of her doctoral dissertation. Katie urges Adam to stop thinking of the cancer as a burden and start thinking of it as a sign that his body needs physical and emotional adjustment. She tells Adam to close his eyes and find an internal place where he can escape the cancer. Adam comes home to find Rachael has bought him a shih tzu. Adam doesn’t want a dog, but Rachael insists they help the healing process. Adam thinks of a dozen reasons why owning a dog won’t help, but it’s clear that Rachael is the one who wants the dog, so Adam reluctantly agrees to keep it.

Adam and Rachael go to NPR for Adam’s chemotherapy “going-away” party. Everyone there has a different home remedy for cancer. Seth tries to console the attractive women who are upset by Adam’s diagnosis. On the way home, Adam’s grumpy from the brutal experience of the party. Rachael finds his pouting adorable. They go home and start fooling around when the dog starts whimpering. Adam tries to ignore her, but Rachael can’t. She forces Adam to take the dog for a walk. Adam impatiently walks the dog, angry that she won’t stop and do her business. When he gets back, Adam asks Rachael to move in. She agrees, then falls alseep before they can have sex. Adam goes to the synagogue with Edith and Art and is horrified and ashamed that Edith uses Adam’s cancer to get preferencial treatment. After the service, Adam talks to his RABBI about the cancer. The Rabbi knows Adam is a poor Jew, but he offers himself in case Adam has any questions, concerns, or desire to reconnect with the Torah.

Adam goes in for his first chemo treatment. He’s seated in a room with a chemo drip, along with other cancer patients, most of them twice to three times his age. Adam watches a man, out of touch with reality, barking obscenities at the wall. MITCH (80) tells Adam not to worry about the man. He’s always like that. ALAN (84) offers Adam a hit of medical marijuana. Mitch and Alan offer two different perspectives on the cancer: Mitch, despite his advanced age, is eternally optimistic, but Alan is perpetually negative. Adam takes a hit from Alan’s one-hitter and falls asleep. He dreams of going to an amusement park, where carnies refuse to let him on rides, pointing to a sign that says “No Cancer.” Adam denies having cancer, but they point to his t-shirt, which says “I’m with Cancer.” He’s attached by an umbilical cord to a giant bald fat man whose shirt is labeled “Cancer.” The cancer man reaches toward Adam and swallows him whole.

Adam visits Katie. He feels horribly both physically and emotionally. He lashes out at Katie, then apologizes, realizing she just wants to help and he should do what she says in order to feel better. Katie gives him a list of books to buy. Adam goes to the bookstore with Seth to pick them out. Seth doesn’t like the depressing subject matter and pulls out a book on Mardi Gras, suggesting the two of them go while Adam still can. Adam refuses. Seth takes his cancer books and uses them to hit on a good-looking sales clerk. Adam goes with Seth to a creepy, Norman Rockwell painting version of a doctor’s office, where Seth fakes poor vision in order to get a prescription for medical marijuana. Back at Adam’s house, they get high. Rachael has moved in all of her boxes but hasn’t unpacked. She catches Adam and Seth getting high and is angry. She gets angrier when she discovers Adam bought a huge, plasma TV and hung it where Rachael planned to hang one of her paintings. She angrily takes the dog for a walk. Adam downplays her behavior, but Seth calls it like he sees it: she’s being incredibly selfish. He loses credibility by twisting it back into a plea to go to Mardi Gras. Adam tells Katie that, after reading the books she recommended, he has realized he’s emotionally blocked. She sends Adam to “laughter therapy” to help. Seth goes with him, but they both find the experience odd and off-putting.

At one of his chemo sessions, Mitch asks why he’s never seen Adam’s girlfriend. Adam says hospitals freak her out. Mitch encourages Adam to ask her to come with him for moral support. He says his wife, to whom he’s been married for 40 years, is the only reason he wants to stay alive. Alan, on the other hand, thinks women are nothing but trouble — they’re selfish and exist to make men miserable. After his treatment, Adam waits for Rachael to pick him up. When she doesn’t, he calls her cell phone repeatedly, but it’s always VoiceMail. Eventually, Katie passes Adam in her car. She offers him a ride home. She drives a small car that’s loaded with clutter. Halfway home, Adam can’t take it anymore. He forces her to pull over next to a Dumpster so he can clean out the car. Katie finds this amusing and endearing. She asks why Adam doesn’t have a license. He says that during his test, he backed his mom’s car into a wildlife sanctuary. Adam offers Katie the chance to come inside for a drink. Katie’s uneasy, but she goes. They play video games, but they’re too complicated for Adam. Adam pines for the simpler days of playing Duck Hunt with his dad. Adam makes wheatgrass shots, which Katie insists will be healthy and make him feel better. They both down the shots, and Katie spits hers out all over Adam in disgust. As she wipes his face off, Rachael comes home. She’s jealous until Adam explains that Katie dropped him off because Rachael forgot to pick him up. Katie leaves, and Adam and Rachael get into a fight. Rachael tries to make Adam see the difficulty she’s having with all of this, so Adam backs down. They attempt to have sex, but the chemo has affected Adam’s virility.

Adam and Mitch attend Alan’s funeral. Adam has a dream that heaven is a Boca Raton retirement community with a frozen yogurt stand. The next day, he visits his Rabbi to ask about the afterlife. The Rabbi has no helpful answers for him, so Adam goes to Katie with the same questions. Now convinced that he’s going to die, and that there is no afterlife, he wonders what’s the point in carrying on. When Katie tries to analyze him directly out of a textbook, Adam unloads on her, accusing her of incompetence before telling her he can’t do this anymore and leaving. Adam gets annoyed with the amount of hair he’s losing. Rachael is less than sympathetic, concentrating more on whether or not she’s getting fat. Depressed, alone, and unhinged, Adam tries to watch TV. He sees a CNN report on the same story he was working on earlier for NPR and makes the decision to try to go back to work. Gaunt, pale, and bald, he looks horrible. Phil tries to be compassionate, but he refuses to let Adam come back to work, for the sake of employee morale.

Adam waits at home for Rachael to pick him up and take him to his post-chemo exam. She doesn’t show up. He calls, gets VoiceMail. He calls Seth, gets VoiceMail. With no other option, he calls his parents. Edith is obnoxiously overbearing, to the extent that Adam unloads on her. Edith gives as good as she gets, though, and she makes Adam understand that yes, she’s a little overbearing, but it’s only because she doesn’t want to lose Adam the same way she has Art. She tearfully confesses that, though she still loves him, Art is no longer the man she married. Adam is all she has left. Dr. Ross comes in with the results: the cancer did not respond to the chemo, so they must operate. Adam reminds Ross that surgery wasn’t an option. Ross says they’re left with no choice. It’s an incredibly risky procedure with a low success rate, but if he doesn’t have the surgery as soon as possible, the cancer will metastasize and kill him. Ross warns that there’s a chance that, even if the surgery succeeds, he’ll never walk again. Adam looks on the bright side: he’ll be able to get handicap parking.

Seth walks past an art gallery and sees Rachael inside, kissing another man. He snaps a photo with his cell phone. Adam comes home from his appointment to find Rachel in a great mood. She announces she’s having a girls’ night out. She gets a text message, which she insists is from a girlfriend. Adam doesn’t believe her, so when she’s distracted, he checks her phone’s message log and finds all the messages are from a man named James, and they clearly suggest she’s cheating. Despite this, Rachael insists he’s just a fellow artist working on a project with her. Adam yells at her for missing the most important appointment of his life to gallivant around with her “art partner.” Rachael tries to change the subject to his results, but Adam demands to know if she’s cheating. She denies it again, when Seth shows up with his cell phone photo. Adam throws her out, pointing out how convenient it was that Rachael never bothered to unpack.

That night, Adam and Seth go out drinking. On the way home, Adam insists on driving, because Seth is much drunker than Adam is. Seth doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but Adam tells him this might be his last chance. He gets out on the road and starts driving the wrong way on a one-way street, terrifying Seth. Adam suddenly stops the car and throws Seth out. Seth reminds Adam that it’s his car, but Adam locks him out. He calls Katie at home, apologizes, and tells her how terrified she is. Then, he passes out from all the alcohol. Later that night, Adam takes Seth to Seth’s apartment. Adam drops the barely-conscious Seth into bed, then goes into Seth’s disgusting bathroom. He starts cleaning up when he discovers a book called Coping with Your Loved One’s Cancer, dog-eared and loaded with bookmarks. He’s touched.

Adam gets a call from his parents’ estate lawyer, tactfully suggesting that Adam may need to make certain preparations. Adam and Seth go coffin shopping, then pick out a burial plot. Adam goes in for his surgery. He’s accompanied by Edith and Art. Katie shows up and asks Adam how he’s doing. Adam is terrified. The anesthesiologist comes to put Adam under. Adam asks if Katie will be there when he wakes up. She has no plans to leave. While they perform surgery, the doctors discuss who Sir Francis Drake was — a pirate or a buccaneer. After, DR. LAMB, the surgeon explains that the surgery was successful in removing the tumor, but Adam suffered nerve damage and will require physical therapy in order to walk again. Some time later, Mitch’s widow, MARGARET, comes to Adam’s house. Wheelchair-bound Adam has invited her to a dinner party with Katie, Seth, Edith, and Art. Adam smiles for the first time since his diagnosis.


I’m with Cancer manages the difficult task of making a story about a cancer patient with a poor prognosis hilarious. Although it’s consistently funny and has an engaging (but somewhat meandering) plot, the script is marred by some stereotypical characters. However, it’s well-written enough to merit a consider.

Adam’s character is extremely well-written. His transition from cheery cynic to unbearably depressed is well-paced and effectively underscores the plot as his situation grows increasingly dire. At first, Seth and Edith seem like stock characters (“horny best friend,” “overbearing mother”), but the writer fills them both with unexpected dimension. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the two love interests who drive the script’s romantic subplot. Rachael’s self-absorbed behavior goes so far over the top, it strains believability, and the writer never takes the time to really dig into the character and make audiences understand the root cause of her selfishness. Similarly, Adam’s conversations with Katie reveal a lot about him but almost nothing about her. This makes her a good psychologist, but it doesn’t make her a compelling love interest.

Despite the character problems, the plot is solid. The two major storylines — Adam’s cancer treatment and the collapse of his relationship with Rachael — build palpable tension during the first and second acts, making Adam’s breakdown in the third act dramatic and empathetic. Although the writer is unafraid to explore the drama and potential tragedy of the story, the comedy never lets up. He does a great job of finding the humor in dire situations, which makes the overall story more palatable than a bleak drama.

The script’s funny, well-written storyline might be enough for audiences to forgive the poorly developed love interests. Maybe the actresses playing those roles can bring some subtle depth that isn’t on the page. Still, it would benefit from just one more draft to really make Rachael and Katie solid and believable.

Posted by D. B. Bates on May 2, 2009 10:13 AM