‘50/50’ is a Welcome Corrective to Cancer Movies

50/50 -- Dir. Jonathan Levine (Summit Entertainment) -- 4 Stars

Courtesy Summit Entertainment

Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick star in director Jonathan Levine’s “50/50.”

“Sad,” “depressing,” “hopeful,” and “uplifting,” are all words usually associated with films about cancer. When tackling such a devastating subject, Hollywood seems to prefer to create either spiritual movies about the transformational nature of illness or emotional tear-jerkers that remind us how close we all are to death’s door. But although “50/50” on occasion veers into this saccharine territory, it mostly treads a less beaten path—reality.

Cancer does not pick its victims in a regular or expected manner; so too, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s Adam is an upstanding citizen who does not drink or smoke, exercises, and works at the local radio station. When the doctor tells him that his back pain is actually a rare and possibly deadly tumor, Adam has a justifiably horrified and confused reaction. His terror at the matter is all the more powerful due to the movie’s credible portrayal of what happens next.

Numbness sets in. For most of the film,  Adam seems blank with shock. The most frequently uttered words in the whole movie are “I’m fine.” If nothing else, “50/50” should be applauded for giving the audience a realistic, if oversimplified, version of the process that too many people endure. The uninitiated public often thinks of cancer as the tragically slow and painful end of older people’s lives, not a disease that afflicts people in their prime. Moreover, all too often a movie with a young, cancer-stricken protagonist goes the way of “A Walk to Remember” and forgets that in the vigor of youth, the young cannot even process their diagnosis. “50/50” offers a much-needed corrective to these traditional misperceptions.

The movie also does some justice to the feelings of Adam’s friends and family. As those who have gone through the experience understand, it is often not the cancer patient’s own reaction that is particularly painful to observe, but the reactions of those around him or her. In this respect, Anjelica Huston brings real sensitivity to the part of Adam’s mother, Diane, who already bears the burden of a husband with Alzheimer’s. Indeed, compared to Adam’s girlfriend Rachael—played with frighteningly cold effectiveness by Bryce Dallas Howard—and Anna Kendrick’s sweet, spacey therapist character, the only woman of any depth in the film is the possessive, clingy, loving mother.

While “50/50” has elements of both romance and buddy comedy, the reality of cancer still looms in the background. Although Kyle (Seth Rogen), Adam’s best friend, manages to pick up girls using Adam’s cancer as a sympathetic hook, screenwriter Will Reiser’s low-key, natural dialogue and storyline in many ways share more DNA with a Lifetime movie than with typical Seth Rogen fare.

Reiser does a beautiful job of exploring each kind of traditional reaction to cancer–the worrying mother, the careless friend, the awkward coworkers. Here, Adam’s two older chemo buddies (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) are an unfortunately clichéd addition to a cast that is otherwise fresher and younger. But as hackneyed as the two may be, they are a welcome relief from some of the film’s other characters. Though an excellent actress, Kendrick comes off as insincere in her role as Adam’s romantic interest, as if she was playing dress-up or awkwardly walking into the middle of someone else’s conversation. Her character belongs only in the rom-com portion of “50/50,” and the moments when she enters the rest of the film’s more serious sections are uncomfortable and shallow.

The main failing of “50/50,” however, lies in its predictable storyline—from the film’s charming background music to the adorable relationship Adam begins with his therapist, the movie makes it all too clear for the attentive viewer where Adam’s story will ultimately end. There are some tonal issues as well; for a movie daring enough to title itself “50/50”—the rather disheartening odds of survival for Adam—Seth Rogen-style weed humor feels a little forced. Ultimately, the movie would be more compelling if, as Adam says to his therapist, people would stop saying that “it’s all fine… [because] it’s not!” But only in some of its final scenes does “50/50” approach that harsher reality.

That said, the power of “50/50” still lies in its juxtaposition of those stark odds with a much more varied range of emotional responses to them. If this were any ordinary movie about cancer, it would become clear early on that Adam has two choices in regards to his sickness: he can be a pessimist or an optimist about his chances and daily life. Instead, Reiser reminds us that people are not that monochromatic, and that every cancer victim, family member, and friend struggles daily with the harrowing pronouncement: “I think I’m starting to realize that I’m going to die.” Because of this, while the movie is not for someone who has lost someone to cancer—it is far too positive to be cathartic—it does tell the honest story of someone who survived.

—Staff writer Sara Kantor can be reached at skantor@college.harvard.edu.

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