9/10 Comical Illnesses
Cancer. Always knew it was this emotional, never knew it could be this funny.
50/50 is about a healthy, twenty-something guy who goes in for a routine check-up one day only to find out that he has spinal cancer. He tells his girlfriend and she reticently decides to tough it out with him, then he tells his best friend who decides to make lemonade out of the situation by using his buddy’s terminal illness as a way for them to pick up chicks. After being given a 50% chance of beating the disease, the guy starts visiting a young psychiatrist to make sense of his mixed emotions while coming to terms with his own life-or-death circumstances.
Folks, it can’t be easy to write a drama about cancer, so it must be one outrageously tall order to make a comedy about it. The last time I saw someone go down that road, it got Jerry Seinfeld booed off the stage. Despite the best efforts of many a comedian, some topics just aren’t good for yuks. But if Life is Beautiful taught us anything about the power of laughter, it’s that it can find a home even in the most tragic of scenarios.
The biggest reason this movie succeeds in toeing the fine line between comic and tragic without falling into the realm of insensitive is screenwriter Will Reiser. A cancer survivor himself, this whole story is in fact a loose adaptation of his own battle with cancer as a healthy, twenty-something guy. He didn’t go through chemo and I’m not so sure about all the medical marijuana he smokes (although I could be dead wrong about that considering his best friend is Seth Rogen), but that’s ultimately beside the point. Like with many sensitive subjects, it tends to be easier to make light of a serious situation when you’ve gone through it firsthand, and that’s where his big-screen surrogate, Adam, comes in.
Adam is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Adam is complicated guy living in complicated times. He’s got a girlfriend that his best friend hates (and vice-versa), a mother he barely knows, a father suffering from dementia, and a job that’s going nowhere. All his life he’s learned to just deal with it, but now that dealing with it just doesn’t cut it, the one thing that’s threatening to end his young life is causing everything to rise to the surface. The hard part of playing Adam doesn’t seem to be the physical strain, but rather the emotional and coming to terms with the possibility of dying in your twenties from something that’s completely out of his control. In short, it’s about time JGL got himself an Oscar-worthy role, and boy, does he freakin’ deliver with Adam.
But as good as JGL is, I was arguably just as impressed by Seth Rogen as Adam’s best friend, Kyle. I mean, it’s Seth Rogen playing Seth Rogen which is what Seth Rogen always does (not including Observe & Report), but the comedic relief he brings to the movie is exactly what the doctor ordered and exactly what makes his relationship with Adam so special. From joking about how Adam’s spinal scar looks like Kuato from Total Recall, to how crushed he is to find out that Patrick Swayze didn’t beat cancer, not only did he have me laughing my ass off, but he’s got a lot of heart to boot.
Though I’ve gotten better about it over the past few years, addressing death or even the possibility of it has always been a struggle. Since I never knew what to say, I just didn’t say anything, but as I’ve come to learn, even the smallest of gestures in these matters goes a long way. The jokey relationship between Adam and Kyle may not be the type you usually see in a movie like this, but it’s as genuine as they come and is exactly why I’ll always kick myself for the times I never said, “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.” Even if his head’s somewhere else, Kyle’s heart is always in the right place, and as a result, he’s as much a part of this story as Adam is. If, God forbid, I ever find myself in Adam’s shoes, I’d want a Kyle at my back.
And as for the ladies, Anna Kendrick is still as neurotic and quirky as ever as Adam’s shrink, Katherine, but that’s also what I really like about her. The girl’s got spunk and there’s something very real and endearing about a cute girl who stumbles over her words when she gets nervous. And I don’t know what compelled Bryce Dallas Howard to start staking her claim as Hollywood’s breakout bitch this year, but she is gettin’ it done as Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael. Not quite on the same level of evil as her whole Jane Crow thing in The Help, but let’s just say that it’s nothing short of cheer-worthy when Seth Rogen pulls the rug out from under her fake ass like the host of a hidden camera show.
Okay, back to the serious stuff.
While I’m infinitely grateful to have been healthy as an ox these past 25 years, you don’t need a diagnosis to get how utterly devastating, unfair, and painful cancer is. I’ve known people who’ve beaten it, lost to it, and are currently fighting it, and no matter how many times you hear the news, the blow never lessens. The danger of making a comedy about cancer is creating the impression that cancer isn’t so bad and that laughter is in fact the best medicine. That’s not what Reiser does. For him, I’m sure it helped having Seth Rogen nearby to lighten the mood, but he doesn’t sugarcoat all the highs and lows of what Adam goes through. And regardless of whether or not it’s a verbatim retelling of real-life events, you can tell when it’s real. They go from poignant and subtle to flat-out inescapable, but there are a lot of powerful, personal moments of shock, frustration, anger, and joy that linger with you long after they’ve passed and will leave you entirely sympathetic, if not empathetic.
I don’t know how Reiser would respond to this, but there’s something brave in how open and honest he is about his experiences that almost cost him his life. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be given a death sentence of sorts and then try to function. Then again, there are a lot of people who know exactly what that’s like and I’m sure his story will resonate with them on a level that I hope to never understand.
It did take a bit to get going, but gut-wrenching comedies like 50/50 just don’t come around enough. Who cares if you already know how it ends? Yes, the element of surprise is gone, but what’s not to like about cancer getting its ass kicked? It’s pretty outstanding the way everything and everyone came together with this movie, because it wasn’t an easy sell and in the wrong hands it could have been a disaster. But in the end, it sure ran the emotional gamut and is a big step up for director Jonathan Levine since The Wackness (even though the soundtrack is expectedly awesome). After all, there’s truly nothing like a belly laugh to cap off a good cry session.