Another Cancer Movie

By Joe Burke | Comedy
A hospice caretaker and a cancer patient form a bond moments before the end.

Two aspiring filmmakers, Chad and Phil, are in the middle of shooting the most important scene of their film. It’s a story about Bobby, a caretaker at a hospital, played by Phil. And he’s fallen in love with Geraldine, one of his cancer patients at the hospital he works at.

But the rub is that in real life, Geraldine is played by Bonnie. And in real life, Bonnie is Phil’s aunt. And she really has cancer. And they have no budget or crew. To make their own Oscar-winning masterpiece, a la “Moonlight,” they have to surmount all these obstacles — as well as themselves.

Writer-director Joe Burke, along with collaborator Oliver Cooper, has crafted a sharply-written, mordant yet oddly touching comedy that works on multiple levels.

With its film-within-a-film, it satirizes the entertainment industry’s appetite for maudlin material and the flattening commercialization of tragedy. It’s also a comment on the vagaries, difficulties and peculiar mindset of the filmmaking process, where chasing the overriding value of success subtly reshapes the relationship between events and emotions.

Working on these levels only, the film works extremely well, with terrifically jazz-like comedic patter and performances that highlight the ridiculousness of the filmmakers’ aspirations and questions the ethics of artmaking in general.

Chad and Phil are truly committed to their cinematic hopes and dreams, which temporarily distract them from the reality of their situation: that their star is actually a cancer patient going through chemotherapy. Yet the comedy isn’t bitter or biting, but self-deprecating, and keeping the underlying emotions at a realistic tenor also allows them to deliver some moments of great poignancy, especially at the film’s ending.

But there’s also another layer that contributes to the surprising earnestness of the film. Lead actress ReBecca Goldstein really is Cooper’s aunt, and she really did have cancer when she shot “Another Cancer Movie” with Burke and Cooper. The filmmakers came up with the idea of their project, which Goldstein embraced, allowing them to turn a real-life emotional situation into something therapeutic, diverting and fun to do while Goldstein went through chemo.

Happily, Goldstein went through chemo and is currently cancer-free, and “Another Cancer Movie” is not a documentary, but simply a nimble, engaging piece of comedic fiction, one that could be filed under the subcategory “dark.” But unlike many dark comedies, which often draw uncomfortable laughs at acts of cruelty, malice and humiliation, the darkness here comes from reckoning in a clever yet bluntly honest way with mortality, something that all of us will face, no matter what.

Perhaps the film’s underlying emotional circumstances give it a courage and sincerity to confront the possibility of losing a loved one. But even if a viewer isn’t aware of the backstory, the film strikes a balance between laughing at our ability to forget about mortality while being caught up in the games of life — while subtly reminding us what’s really important at the end of it all.

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