Sep 30 2011
Taking a deeper look at current and past films and how they relate to the world today. Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
Cancer isn’t something to laugh about. And when we think of movies about people with terminal illnesses, we mostly think of inspirational tales about appreciating life and the indomitability of the human spirit or weepy tearjerkers about love conquering death. The film ‘50/50’ takes the terminal illness movie into new territory. First, by combining it with an only recently identified genre — the bromance comedy. And second, by the fact that ‘50/50’’s afflicted protagonist is barely in his late twenties, an age where it’s hard enough to get perspective on your life, let alone face its early end.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a soft-spoken, unadventurous, unremarkable guy living a comfortable, relatively average life working for a radio station. Adam’s relationship with Rachael, his attractive artist girlfriend played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is progressing to the next level, and for entertainment, Adam has his buddy Kyle, a juvenile but hilarious lothario played by Seth Rogen.
After noticing a persistent back pain, Adam goes to a doctor, where a scan reveals the shocking news that Adam’s pain is from a tumor along his spine caused by a rare form of cancer, and the prognosis isn’t good, with only a 50/50 chance of survival.
As someone who has traded a more interesting life for a mundane one he can control, Adam does his best to absorb this horrible news and not make a big deal of it. Unfortunately, Adam’s mom, played by Anjelica Huston is an over-involved worrier, a job she’s grown used to while taking care of a husband with Alzheimer’s. While Rachael initially pledges to stand by Adam, it soon becomes obvious that being Adam’s primary support is more than their relationship can handle. Meanwhile, Kyle thinks Adam should use his cancer to score sympathy points with women and get them both laid, and the therapist assigned to help Adam deal with his condition, played by Anna Kendrick, looks to be barely out of college.
‘50/50’ is based on the true story of Will Reiser, the film’s screenwriter, who also was diagnosed with cancer while in his 20s. At the time he and Seth Rogen were working together as young writers, and Rogen watched, as his character does, as his friend deteriorated in front of him. As a twenty-something ready to take on the world, Rogen could only respond to this by falling back on what he knew best, movies and comedy, joking with Reiser about his condition and encouraging him to write a script about it.
Since then, Rogen has become Hollywood’s clown prince based on his roles in Judd Apatow’s manchild comedies, and he’s a producer on ‘50/50’. This might be what gives ‘50/50’ its wonderfully intimate, personal feel. It’s not a movie that makes grand statements about what life is and how we should live it. It’s about what happens when a young, fairly uninteresting guy who never wanted to cause a fuss or take risks is faced with a situation where everyone is fussing over him as he faces the biggest risk of his life. And ‘50/50’ does this with tremendous heart and humor that never feels manipulative, jokey or contrived, with terrific performances by the entire cast.
Men usually only shed tears at movies involving sports, but ‘50/50’ will have both men and women laughing and crying, which is often the hallmark of a great film. But it’s hard not to see ‘50/50’ in terms of the evolution of its co-producer Seth Rogen. While there’s still enough dirty humor to show that movies’ biggest manchild hasn’t fully grown up, ‘50/50’ shows that he also has a grasp of emotionally complex, adult moments, while staying true to the popular Apatow theme that it’s your buddies, not your significant others, who always have your back. While cancer is serious business, ‘50/50’ shows that, with the right touch, it can also be hilarious.
‘50/50’ is rated R and opens today.