As its title suggests, “Nothing to Laugh About” addresses a serious subject.
The Norwegian film, directed by Petter Næss, centers on a 40-year-old successful stand-up comedian whose entire life changes in one single day: not only is his show cancelled, but he splits up with his girlfriend and also has to deal with a devastating diagnosis from his doctor – bone cancer.
“Nothing to Laugh About” had its international premiere last week at the Zurich Film Festival, having earlier launched in cinemas in Norway in the number two spot behind “Dune.”
Rather than focus on the cancer aspect of the film, the festival’s program notes describe the film as a “charming, heart-warming and humorous story of a man who sets out to rediscover his laughter.”
And this is exactly the kind of film that Næss – best known for directing Norway’s 2002 Oscar entry “Elling” – set out to make.
“When we were about to release it, we tried to avoid using the word cancer – because instantly people think they don’t want to see it,” he says, the day after the Zurich premiere. “This is not a comedy about cancer. This is a movie about wanting to live.”
For comparison, he reaches for films where ostensibly difficult subject matters have provided an opportunity to explore how we live our lives.
Roberto Benigni’s Oscar winner “Life Is Beautiful,” he says, is “not so much a movie about the Holocaust as one about creating illusions.” French hit “The Intouchables” is “not a comedy about a person in a wheelchair, it’s a wonderful movie about an odd couple’s relationship.”
The same might be said too of Næss’s “Elling,” an odd couple comedy about two friends discharged together from a psychiatric treatment center into a flat in central Oslo.
The cast of “Nothing to Laugh About” is led by Odd-Magnus Williamson, who also wrote the script. Næss says that when he first read Williamson’s script on a train ride in Norway he liked how it balanced humor with seriousness. “I’ve always been in fear of dying and death all my life – and I’ve always used humor to ventilate it.”
Initially, he admits, he was skeptical though. “I thought it was another movie about spoiled brats in Oslo with too much and who are never satisfied. But suddenly I realized I was wrong and I went on this emotional rollercoaster – I laughed and I cried. I wanted the passengers on the train to one day be able to go to the movie and understand why.”
Næss, who has worked extensively in theater and TV as well as film, had previously staged a show about patients with terminal cancer. “All of the research we did then was that one of the hardest things for people with cancer is to deal with other people – because they stop being funny and are very serious around them. But they said they wanted to be treated like living, regular people.”
Adds Næss: “The serious aspects of the film don’t get less serious just because they are treated with humor.”
The film team also consulted with doctors and cancer organizations in Norway. “They read the script before we started shooting and would say, ‘This is the kind of movie we need right now.’”
One can see why. According to Cancer Research U.K., one in two people in the U.K. born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. Given cancer touches so many people, “Nothing to Laugh About” might find an audience after all – despite the subject matter.