THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Joseph Gordon-Levitt breaks the bad news to best friend Seth Rogen in 50/50.
In a famous routine, George Carlin once said that anything can be funny, depending on how you approach it. He gave the example of rape, which, of course, everyone knows is not funny at all. “Now imagine Elmer Fudd raping Daffy Duck,” Carlin concluded. Whether or not you think that's a funny image, his point is valid. Jonathan Levine's 50/50 is a movie that proves cancer, of all things, can be funny. Not the disease itself, but the response to it and the way people seek a mental reprieve from living with it. Most “cancer movies” are downers that, even when well-made, send you out of the theater feeling bummed. This one certainly has moments that make you hold your breath, but just as many that make you laugh.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam Lerner, a young man in his twenties who goes to the doctor for what he thinks is routine back pain. He is floored when the doctor tells him that he actually has a rare form of spinal cancer. The odds of beating it? You guessed it: 50/50. Adam begins getting chemotherapy, subsequently befriending two older patients (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who introduce him to medical marijuana. While that gives him some temporary relief from his fear of dying, everything else tends to crumble around him. His girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), was already emotionally checking out of the relationship at the time of his diagnosis; now she feels too guilty to flat-out leave him, which turns out to be worse than simply ending it. Adam's mom (Angelica Houston) wants to support him, but he pushes her away because of her smothering nature. A therapist-in-training named Katherine (Anna Kendrick) tries to help him cope. Her inexperience is no match for his resentment of his illness, though.
The biggest boost Adam gets comes from his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), the only one who doesn't treat him like a fatality waiting to happen. Kyle encourages Adam to use his diagnosis to pick up sympathetic women. While their time together is Adam's last remaining semblance of normalcy, both of them feel the unspoken fear of the friendship ending due to death.
50/50 was written by Will Reiser, a comedy writer who was diagnosed with cancer in his twenties and helped through it by a close friend – a guy named Seth Rogen. As you might imagine, when two funnymen are involved, nothing is going to be sacred. This is where the laughs in the semi-autobiographical story come in. Kyle is determined to help his pal carry on as normal a life as possible. His cure for cancer: getting a brother laid. He also tosses off wisecracks while his buddy shaves his head in anticipation of chemotherapy. The old saying goes that “laughter is the best medicine.” What we see here is an example of laughter emerging from unexpected places (Adam tries to tell his mother about his diagnosis by saying, “Did you ever see Terms of Endearment?”). Our culture is conditioned not to laugh at serious things, yet humor can soften painful subjects, or make them easier to bear. Kyle believes that, and so does the movie.
While the laughs are abundant in 50/50, there is also a pervasive sense of authenticity. This is, at heart, a story about a young man suddenly having to face his own mortality. The screenplay movingly takes us through the stages, as Adam first avoids, and then confronts, the very real possibility that his time could be unfairly cut short. Some of the most effective moments are wordless, such as a quiet shot of him getting an MRI, or a moment when he observes - with some jealousy - healthy, carefree people going about their business. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb in his role, always showing us both Adam's desperate desire to live and the panic that he may not have the time to do all the things he wanted for himself. At one point, Adam's fear suddenly catches up to him in a big way; it is Gordon-Levitt's shining moment. It probably won't happen, but the actor deserves an Oscar nomination.
Mixing humor and painful subject matter is, naturally, very difficult. The beauty of this movie is that it does so with ease. You never feel like the tone is shifting abruptly from one to the other. Instead, it glides effortlessly between moments of comedy and moments that realistically show the mental toll Adam's physical illness takes on him. In fact, a lot of the time, it embraces both things simultaneously. There's a terrific montage, ironically set to the Bee Gees' “To Love Somebody,” in which Adam, high on marijuana, strolls carefree and grinning through the halls of a hospital, chemically avoiding the sick and ravaged bodies of other cancer patients, i.e. his immediate future. Everything that works about 50/50 is in this scene: it's funny, it's truthful, and the way it lets us peek into Adam's psyche is engrossing.
The supporting cast adds a great deal to the story. Seth Rogen is hilariously profane, while still conveying a believable sense of concern for his friend. Anna Kendrick takes a sticky role and avoids cliché. (There's more than a bit of flirtation between Adam and Katherine.) Then there's Bryce Dallas Howard, who follows up her excellent turn in The Help with an equally good one here. Her character is not entirely sympathetic, but, man, what a dilemma! Rachael is caught between wanting out of a relationship that isn't working and not wanting to appear heartless. It is one of those scenarios where a person simply doesn't know what to do, and whatever they try just ends up badly. The actress does a marvelous job conveying moral confusion.
50/50 has moments that made me choke up. I mean, we all know someone who has (or has had) cancer, right? The film doesn't shy away from the soul-shaking reality that life is fragile. But this is ultimately a joyous movie, and not just because we know the writer on whose life it is based beat the odds. It is joyous because it says that in life's darkest moments, others are there to provide love and support. It is joyous because it glorifies friendship, family, and the desire to stick around long enough to enjoy life's many pleasures. I was deeply moved by 50/50. How nice it is to see such a funny, emotionally honest picture.
( out of four)
50/50 is rated R for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.