50/50 (2011)

Film #27: 50/50 (2011)

50/50 is a movie about cancer. Well, a movie about cancer and coping with cancer. Written by Will Reiser, who based the script loosely around his own experiences with the big C, and directed by Jonathan Levine, 50/50 takes a comedic-dramatic approach to the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old journalist who finds out he has a rare form of spinal cancer. It’s a total shock, of course. Not only does Adam not smoke or anything, he’s so safety-oriented that he waits for crosswalks to turn white before jogging across the street. This huge disruption shakes him, as well as everyone around him: His almost live-in girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), his best friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen), and his worrisome mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), already burdened with taking care of his father who has Alzheimer’s (Serge Houde). Adam begins to undergo treatment for his affliction, but his survival is pretty much a coin toss: The survival rate is 50%.

Like I said in the beginning of this review, 50/50 is a film about coping, about how every individual deals with this situation in a different way. Let’s start with Adam himself, since it’s his story, after all. Adam is essentially in disbelief as his doctor – an impersonal individual who only speaks in jargon, can’t maintain eye contact, and calls Adam’s malignant schwannoma “fascinating” – tells him his diagnosis. His world blurs as he’s suddenly reminded of his own mortality. After this, he seems to fall into shock. He handles the situation with a sort of practical devastation. He gives his girlfriend an out, knowing that she shouldn’t have to deal with this if she doesn’t want to. He tells his friends and his mother in a calm and level-headed way, and tries to defuse their understandably hysteric reactions. Even when he gets a therapist who’s younger than he is (Anna Kendrick) – so young that she doesn’t get a Doogie Howser reference – he takes it in stride. It’s an awful situation, but even when the chemo begins and he finds himself sick and weak all the time, he handles it.

Anna Kendrick as Katherine, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam

But one can only look death in the face for so long before blinking. As the chemo fails to take effect and his options begin to dwindle, Adam’s resilience becomes tougher to maintain. He finally snaps and has an outburst appropriate for the unfairness of it all. He screams and cries so much that he practically fractures his larynx. He’s a brave man, but brave men can be scared, and nothing is scarier than death itself. Adding to his frustration and leading up to this break down is the fact that everyone in his life seems to make his cancer an issue about his- or herself.

Take his girlfriend Rachael. When he breaks the news to her and gives her an out, she refuses to take it, promising to stand by him during his time of need. When push comes to shove, though, she’s not really there for him. She refuses to go into the hospital while he’s there for his chemo – she doesn’t want to “mix those worlds”, neglecting the fact that Adam has only one world and it’s dominated by cancer – and she’s late to pick him up from the hospital afterward. She says she’s trying her best, but outside of getting him a dog, her support only ever comes in the form of words, never actions. At first, it’s hard to blame her. She doesn’t seem like a *bad* person, just a weak one. After all, how many of us could say with certainty how we’d behave in a similar position? Some people are fated to look bad by the situations that history thrusts upon them. But when her lack of support degenerates into full-blown infidelity, her true colors are finally on display. Adam, true to his practical nature, wastes no time kicking her out of his house and cutting her out of his life. Perhaps Adam would have taken a cheating girlfriend back before the diagnosis, but when your life hangs in the balance every day, you don’t have time for histrionic bullshit.

And Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) has a lot of histrionic bullshit to give

Speaking of histrionics, his mother also initially deals with the news in a self-centered manner. Here’s a woman who answers Adam’s phone call with “Oh my God, what’s wrong?”, an irritating contrast to Adam’s level-headed nature. When he tells her about the diagnosis a few days after the fact, her first reaction is anger at him for waiting so long. She’s more concerned with her own peace of mind than with her son’s personal coping techniques. It’s easy to write her off as dramatic and an unnecessary point of stress in Adam’s life. But his therapist Katherine calls Adam out on the fact that by not calling her back, he’s neglecting his mom, so that right now she’s dealing with “a husband who can’t talk to her and a son who won’t”. Katherine flat out calls him a dick, and it breaks the perspective of his mom as an overbearing nuisance, reminding him that, annoying or not, Diane’s a person too.

The most sympathetic person in Adam’s life is Kyle, his best friend. True to Rogen tradition, Kyle is an immature slacker who thinks of nothing but sex. He’s the one who uncovers Rachael’s infidelity, and he stands by Kyle as he shaves his head and deals with that break-up. Still, sometimes it seems like Kyle places the needs of his penis above the needs of his best friend, as he continually uses Adam’s cancer as a way to meet women. At first it’s pretty funny, but it becomes almost pathological, to the point where Adam himself can’t handle it anymore. It seems like even his best friend is using the situation in a self-centered way instead of letting it be about Adam.

Yelling at a man with cancer: “Don’t waste my time, man!”

It’s not that simple, though, and Adam realizes it when he finds a heavily-read book about dealing with cancer in Kyle’s house. He has a similar realization with his mother when she reveals that she’s been attending a support group for parents whose children have cancer. 50/50 sets up Diane and Kyle in a way that makes you find them selfish, in a way that angers you because they’re making the situation about themselves. But they’re coping in their own way. Obviously, this situation is the worst for Adam, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard on everyone else. The news of his cancer is a huge shockwave, and Diane’s and Kyle’s behaviors are just their ways of dealing with it. Everyone, despite their flaws, is shown in a sympathetic light – although, the film makes a point with Rachael, there is a line; you don’t Gingrich your significant other and come out looking like a decent person.

50/50 deals with some seriously heavy material, but it never preaches to the viewer or descends into maudlin heartstring-tugging. It knows that the story is tragic all on its own, so it’s able to deal with it in a very “real” manner, as frankly as Adam deals with it himself. By taking this approach, it manages to be hilarious and heart-warming at the same time. This is, by all standards, an amazing movie, and probably the best comedy – dramatic or otherwise – to come out in the past few years.

Final rating: 10/10

–James A. Janisse

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Stray Observations:

  • “No fucking shit she doesn’t like to, who likes putting dicks in their mouth? You do it because – that’s why they call it blowjobs. It’s a job!”
  • “That’s your Make-A-Wish? To drive?”
  • I couldn’t work them into the analysis, but Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer were excellent as Adam’s older chemo companions. They were the only characters who really understood Adam’s situation, and they introduced him to medical marijuana. Win/win. It was tragic when Mitch died, even though things seemed to be going really well for him. Just goes to show you that sometimes, cancer doesn’t give a damn how well you’re coping. It’ll still getcha.
  • Love love love Anna Kendrick. Absolutely love her.
  • What an ass-kicking soundtrack. Apparently the studio’s not going to release a soundtrack to purchase, which is a travesty. Every song in the film was chosen with perfection.
  • Oh yeah, just a heads up: You’re gonna cry. Accept it. Enjoy it.
  • “Now what?”
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