' ' Cinema Romantico: 50/50

Monday, October 10, 2011


What's most striking is that for a film about a character diagnosed with a rare form of cancer who essentially has an, ahem, "50/50" shot at survival is how little the characters progress emotionally. Typically in what we'll call for lack of a better term Disease Films, the change in characters is gargantuan and obvious while, on the other hand, "50/50" is about on par with how far pieces move on a cribbage board. It underscores how even in the midst of the most life altering revelation imaginable, we really change as people in the tiniest of increments, though those increments are, in fact, quite huge.

What's also striking about a film dealing with a cancer patient is how little we see of the patient undergoing cancer treatment. We see him talking things over with a therapist and getting shuttled to and from treatment sessions and we even see him strike up a friendship with a few older patients while they all wait together to undergo chemotherapy but the decision by writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine is to keep the focus primarily on what transpires outside the hospital. This is not the film cheapening what is in reality an absurdly difficult process but choosing to show how what keeps someone in this particular situation going is what transpires outside the hospital.

At age 27 Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a quiet do-gooder who doesn't drink or smoke or take drugs or even seem to use harsh language, is told he has spinal cancer. His support network is established - well, in theory it's a support network. His mother (Anjelica Huston, deft and brilliant) is worrywart who badgers her son about everything with only the best intentions that, of course, causes her son to wait a whole 2 days before actually telling her he has cancer. She wants to move in. He says no. His artist girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) will take care of him. Except it's clear from the get-go their relationship is in mildly dire straits, explained when he tells his best friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogen, a far better second banana than leading man and kind of resembles what Tony Roberts used to be to Woody Allen) that they haven't had sex in weeks. This is confusing to the pot-smoking, beer-swilling Kyle because all he ever seems to have on his mind is sex and, sure enough, once he gets the obligatory shock at Adam having a terrible disease out of the way he immediately begins to determine how they can use these news to score chicks.

Adam is sent to a therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick, who has the film's best line precisely because of how she says it - "I won't take no for answer"), who isn't really a therapist but a grad student working on her dissertation. (She also streamlines things by doubling as the New Love Interest.) Adam is her, uh, third patient. She says things straight outta Psych 101 and tries to touch him tenderly on the arm as a means to reassure which only freaks him out. He also makes friends with a couple older patients with more pronounceable forms of cancer who turn him to the medical ganja and offer perspective.

All the relationships in this film are far from perfect. Adam won't return his mother's calls because he can't take her ceaseless worrying. It turns out Rachel is not being faithful. Kyle just seems to be using Adam to further his own agenda. Katherine, in truth, has no idea what she's doing and even admits in an awkward real world situation to her patient that she sort of stalks her ex on Facebook. All these characters have faults, to be sure, but they are also completely unequipped with how to approach the situation. Adam's unequipped, too, as the film moves along we realize "50/50" is as much about this little group's inability to communicate as it is about its main character's medical battle.

In the magnificent scene at the dinner table when Adam is trying to break the news to his parents he asks, "Have you seen 'Terms Of Endearment?'" This line works wonderfully on two levels. One, it's essentially saying without 'saying' it that "50/50" has no interest in being "Terms Of Endearment." This won't be a hardcore take on such a situation, rather a situation that spotlights how one when undergoes such a traumatic experience he or she needs - requires - comfort away from the endless crap. "50/50" is an illustration of the comfort which goes back to why scenes in the doctor's office are few. Two, this line speaks to our modern day pop culture saturation. Seriously, if I were diagnosed with the disease (knocking on wood - knocking on wood) my first thought unquestionably would be, "Well, Kylie Minogue had it. And she told it to fuck off. So I can tell it to fuck off, too!" I imagine thinking about it in that sort of context offers......comfort.

Admittedly, "50/50" does not stray far from the expected structure. But it colors in between those lines so adeptly it lets the film rise about any formula to which it may adhere. The last line is so perfect, so simple but so eloquent, it should be copied and pasted and forwarded to every screenwriter in Hollywood. I dig movies that are First Acts.

1 comment:

Castor said...

Pleasant movie. I thought it got off to a bit of a slow start and seems a bit too generic at times (the cold doctor who speaks in incomprehensible medical terms for example) but overall, it's a very sincere and competently told story.