Possibly the best film about cancer I’ve ever seen.
As the film began, I found myself furrowing my brow at the somewhat frustrating series of events were unfolding before me. Not that anything seemed bad per se, but rather that the film seemed to be hitting all of the standard beats of a comedy of these sorts. See the Judd Apatow school of comedy that has been infecting our screens of late. The hip musical cues, the standard bromance, the elegantly designed shots and cranes that seem really shallow upon retrospection: you know the kind. As all of this unfolded, I continued to ask myself whether I was going to allow myself to become invested in this film, or rather would the film allow me to take that crucial leap? I continuously saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen as their personalities rather than characters, and the familiarity of the situation and composition didn’t really help.
And then he gets the cancer. To preface, 50/50 is based upon the real life event of writer Will Reisner’s own battle with cancer at a very young age. Substituting himself is Adam (played by Gordon-Levitt), a man of his mid twenties who discovers he has a unique case of back cancer (of which he can’t even enunciate). His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) all become entangled in the confusing and frightening turn of events that becomes Adam’s struggle to beat the rare disease.
Now I’m not adverse to the particulars of the economic driven styles of Hollywood cinema, but when a film begins to use the formula as a crutch and advertises its form to myself, I begin to switch off. It is only until an element of the story or a unique character development comes along that I tune back in and go along for the ride. 50/50 achieves this quite incredibly and against all seeming odds. The cancer comedy.
As someone who has never had cancer, or even particularly known anybody that closely to have suffered from the crippling disease, I cannot deem myself fit to comment on the absolute accuracy of the situation presented in 50/50. However, I can use that fickle imagination of mine to come to the conclusion that this is perhaps the most accurate presentation that has ever graced our cinema screens. Sure, cancer is a debilitating disease, one that causes its sufferer to stare death directly in the face and inflicts much pain and suffering on not only the individual but also the people around them. However, it can’t all be that bad. Life is not one grim and sorrow moment one after the other (for most). There are moments of happiness (as slight as they may seem) and there are moments of awkward tension and release. People contribute, they show their best sides, they smile when they feel like crying. Even with cancer, one cannot be upset all the time.
That is what 50/50 gets right. When one of Adam’s chemotherapy friends dies suddenly, we become witness to the shocking spontaneity of death. When he faces up to his potential demise we see the very real death anxiety that is thrust upon him. However, we also see Adam getting high on medicinal marijuana with his chemo buddies in their backyard. We see him go out with his friend Kyle in an effort to use cancer as his pick up line. The film manages to capture the extreme ups and downs, the uncertainty and the joy that such a rush of potential death (and life) can only inflict. It also manages to hone in on the subtler moments in which one is traditionally meant to display sadness or fear or relief and rather than display them as rigid moments of emotion, it displays them as fluid, lucid and ultimately, real.
And this is where the Apatow comedy comes in to play and absolutely works. By nature the Apatow style is free-flowing, spontaneous and unpredictable. Wedge this story into that framework and what you are left with is a realistic and poignant depiction of what it truly must be like to suffer from any form of life-threatening illness. It may be confronting, it may induce your own death drive (it certainly did for me), but it avoids the cliché, it avoids the heart string manipulation and leaves you with what I can only attempt to deem as the closest to the truth as we can really get. An incredible achievement considering the taboo that surrounds the subject matter methinks.