Can cancer be...funny
In the new film 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, the answer is yesÖand no.
The film is based on the real-life experience of screenwriter Will Reiser, a close friend of Rogenís in real life, concerning his battle with a rare form of spine cancer when he was 24. Reiser is quick to point out that the film is fiction, but it deals with the reactions of people to friends/family diagnosed with cancer as well as the cancer patientís struggles. Seth Rogen, on NBCís Today, reflected on going through this experience with his friend saying, ďWeíre comedians. We used humor to deal with it.Ē Ergo: funny film. But the story also highlights the physical and emotional suffering of the patient and those who care about him.
In the film, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old man living in a hip, trendy city (Vancouver B. C. standing in for Seattle), working at a hip, trendy job (public radio), when he learns of his cancer. He reacts in disbelief: ďI canít have cancer. I donít smoke, I donít drink, . . . I recycle!Ē His character represents what I like to call the Great American Denial. In American culture today, the biggest taboo is acknowledging death. We like to think that if we just eat the right foods and do the right things, that Death wonít come a-knockiní. That goes double for young people. In real life, Reiser did not undergo chemotherapy, but much of Adamís experience revolves around chemo. His ďchemo groupĒ includes Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall). These two characters provide some of the filmís funniest scenes, but also some of the most poignant. Bryce Dallas Howard portrays Rachael, Adamís beautiful, but self-absorbed, girlfriend. When the film opens, they are close to living together Ė she has her own drawer at his place -- but itís easy to sense her emotional distance. Itís obvious that Adam is the one who makes all the concessions in the relationship. Does she have the guts to stand by him? Iíll leave that to you to discover.
Adam keeps most of his feelings inside. Heís the kind of guy who likes everything in its place -- heís a rule-obeyer. The only time he really communicates honestly is with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). Rogen does his usual man/boy schtick. Heís stuck in a kind of endless adolescence and thinks any problem can be solved by having a few beers and getting laid. Adamís doctor refers him to a psychotherapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who turns out to be a doctoral student completing her clinical studies. Sheís very green and mainly uses textbook phrases and recommendations to try to help Adam. He is only her third patient, and most likely her youngest one, based on her obvious distress about his condition. Adam is quick to call her hand on her ďrecitationsĒ, and itís clear that these two are more like peers than doctor/patient. Unexpectedly, however, they help each other. She realizes that textbooks canít prepare her for real-patient situations, and he begins to get in touch with his long-suppressed feelings.
Anjelica Huston makes the most of her screen time as Adamís mother as she tries to tailor her reactions to appease her son. Her anguish is palpable, but she quickly picks up that Adam will not be receptive to it. She is also dealing with a husband (Serge Houde) whoís stuck in the perpetual fog of mid-stage Alzheimerís Disease. All of the people in Adamís life will be greatly affected by his illness, some in unexpected ways. Adam himself will discover much about them as well as much about himself in the process.
50/50 is quite a likeable film. I have just a couple of little complaints. In interviews, Seth Rogen has said that Kyle is an exaggerated version of himself. Kyle is indeed exaggerated -- too much so. Rogenís over-the-top performance becomes annoying even in the midst of its comedic intent. Adamís recovery, which his surgeon explains will be long and very painful, is glossed over. The audience never sees that. One minute heís lying in his hospital bed doped up on morphine, and the next minute heís at home doing just fine. A bit of a transition would have been welcome. Donít let these little complaints stop you from seeing this film. Iím a huge fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- he just keeps getting better and better. Itís his film to make or break, and he definitely makes it!