How, exactly, does someone go on living while they may be dying of cancer? This is the question pondered in 50/50.
It’s also a question very close to my heart, because I’ve experienced it by way of my father, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004. Luckily, the Mandate Pictures release is so entertaining and real that it’s not a movie only viewers in my position will appreciate. Luckier still, it’s (blessedly) not a weep-fest. Sure, cancer is messy – so is life – and what’s comedy but an outlet for poking fun at life? Finally, with 50/50, Hollywood realizes cancer resides under that umbrella.
Adam, played in pitch-perfect form by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a 27-year-old professional working for Seattle Public Radio. He has an obnoxious best friend, co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen – exhaustingly typecast, at this point, but serviceable in the role), and a beautiful, albeit aloof, girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). The film opens with Adam describing his recent bouts of back pain and night sweats to Kyle, who – as is typical for his character, we learn – immediately delves into sexual innuendos.
Shortly thereafter, Adam finds himself studying a “Living With Incontinence” pamphlet while waiting in his doctor’s office. Once the specialist arrives, the news is delivered in jarringly sterile, analytical fashion: Adam has a tumor on his spine, the result of a rare gene mutation. The doctor launches into the course of treatment, marveling at the rareness of the disease (the only decipherable phrase being that he finds it all quite “fascinating”). Adam only wants to know whether he’ll survive, to which the doctor simply replies that there’s an on-staff psychologist he can talk to. (Speaking from experience: This really isn’t a dramatic play – specialists seem wired to speak in robotic terminology. My father and mother eventually began taking a medical dictionary with them to appointments.)
Reeling, Adam is left to read up on his unpronounceable disease — “the more syllables, the worse it is,” a friend in treatment will later note — rely on the support of his equally baffled friends and family, and, eventually, seek the help of young psychologist Katherine (the eminently lovable Anna Kendrick).
So many of the scenes that follow are juxtapositions in the comedy of errors that is navigating extreme illness. Adam shaves his head in anticipation of treatment, then Kyle attempts to use his sickly appearance to pick up girls. “No one wants to fuck me – I look like Voldemort,” Adam bemoans. After he informs his overbearing mother (the always-incredible Anjelica Houston), she busies herself with fixing him a cup of green tea, crying that she heard it prevents cancer. “But I already have cancer, Mom,” Adam sighs.
He arrives for his first chemotherapy treatment and meets Mitch and Alan, two (much older) fellow patients, who invite him to join them in snacking on a batch of pot brownies. Adam eventually concedes, and, floating in a post-chemo haze through the hospital halls, laughs hysterically as an occupied body bag is wheeled past him. Horrible, right? But also hilarious.
The scene resonated so strongly, I immediately thought of my father’s first chemotherapy treatment. My dad was a really great-looking guy, so naturally the young nurse chatted nervously with him as she attempted to locate a vein. He braced himself as the fluid began to drain into his body, then suddenly yelled, “This burns – is it supposed to feel like that?” The liquid was pooling in an ever-growing mass under his skin; the nurse had missed the vein. As she struggled to amend the problem, apologizing profusely, my father grumbled, “If you hadn’t been so busy flirting with me, maybe you would’ve properly done your job.” After she walked away, he deadpanned, “Why the hell did I have to be so goddamn handsome?”
And that’s the thing writer Will Reiser, a cancer survivor, and director Jonathan Levine understand about cancer: It’s an event so shocking and earth-shattering for the sufferer – and, by default, their family and friends – that nobody quite knows how to act. You attempt normalcy and find yourself overcompensating; you feel inappropriate for cracking jokes, but sometimes that’s the only way to cut the tension. And, while everything falls apart, revelations and redemptions spring up among the wreckage.
Levine captures these myriad moments – the disgusting, the funny, the terrifying – with such deftness that even the film’s most repulsive characters are humanized in the process (Howard does her best to make us hate her, but eventually even she has her reasons, we realize). Levine gets that not every narrative about a sick person requires over-the-top drama to hit the point home. My Sister’s Keeper, Love Story and Terms of Endearment, this most certainly is not (although the latter is brought up in giggle-worthy form during Adam’s attempt to break the news of his diagnosis to his parents).
50/50 is about the subtleties – daily struggles, grappling with your formerly well and currently sick self, the things none of us automatically think about when we consider our mortality. It’s not preachy, and it’s not afraid to be awkward or inappropriate. It doesn’t seek to make you laugh or cry, it simply documents, draws you in and allows you to react accordingly. And, take it from me, that’s about the most authentic way anyone can craft a story of this nature. After all, isn’t laughter the best medicine?
50/50 opens today nationwide.