Troy Media – by Glenn R. Wilkinson
50/50, a well-balanced film that walks the line between comedy and cancer, gives us the opportunity to find ways to talk about disease and death that sometimes remains elusive.
While discussing difficult issues, it avoids descending into maudlin or cloyingly saccharine language, while at the same time not coming across as awkward, crass, or juvenile. There are no gratuitously offensive characters like the ‘Cancer Boy’ in Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy. In fact, none of the characters are two-dimensional: all of them are complex, displaying foibles and failings in some way, representing the myriad of ways that we react to cancer and our own mortality. This is a film that involves pathos, comedy and a little romance equally and effectively.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27 years old and is diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. Everyone seems to be having difficulty dealing with Adam’s illness: his work colleagues treat him differently, even holding a party for him after they find out, all acting strangely; his best friend, Kyle (subtly played by Canadian Seth Rogen), uses the situation to get laid and encourages Adam to do the same; his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), with whom he’s in a troubled relationship, pledges to stay with him; Adam’s mother, already over-burdened with a husband with medical needs, over-functions and tries to smother her son; and Adam starts to see a therapist, a very young, inexperienced, and awkward Katherine (Anna Kendrick).
The film benefits greatly from a feeling of veracity – this story rings true, partly because it was based on the real-life experiences of writer Will Reiser and his supportive friends Seth Rogen and fellow Canadian, writer Evan Goldberg. There is also great comedic writing throughout the film, interspersed with real pathos. We witness scenes where we are made to laugh, immediately followed by a crashing reality, a trajectory that is symptomatic and characteristic of the way cancer affects lives of sufferers and their family and friends.
One scene in particular illustrates this: having eaten marijuana-laced macaroons during chemotherapy with his new friends, Adam wanders the halls – distant, detached, almost blissful – where some real dramas are taking place. Right after this scene, the tone changes and we witness a poignant moment that brings us back to the reality of this most deadly disease.
Complex secondary characters
In addition to the lead characters, the story is given texture through the presence of two secondary-characters, both women. Rachael is a complex and unlikeable character, yet her situation elicits our sympathy. She is having second thoughts about her relationship with Adam well before he is diagnosed, signalled by their non-existent sex-life, Hollywood code for troubled relationships. Kyle, having never really liked Rachael, finds out a secret about her, photographs her, and tells Adam, initiating a break. While Rachael represents the feelings and struggles that most of us would not like to admit that we might display, her character is honest and heart-felt. She feels the pressure and reacts in a way that she regrets and asks for Adam’s forgiveness, while being pushed away by the protective Kyle.
The other character who provides layers to this work is Diana, Adam’s mother (wonderfully played by Anjelica Huston). She gushes and smothers when she hears about his illness, but she is also complex. Adam’s father suffers from dementia and Adam has been pushing her away for years, unable to deal with her. It’s not until Adam’s therapist, Katherine, points out how lonely she is, with a husband who can’t talk to her and a son who won’t, that their relationship begins to open up. This is the typical mother-son relationship, and it will touch a chord with anyone who has an older or absent mother.
Film belongs to Rogen
Yet the film belongs to Seth Rogen. Rogen has the best lines and, while reining in his enthusiastic acting somewhat, his energy brings out not only Kyle’s infectious joie de vivre, but also his concern and support for his friend, making Kyle a highly multifaceted character. While Kyle appears to be only interested in sex, drugs, and drinking, Adam discovers that, in fact, his friend has been harbouring a profound and sincere concern for him, dealing with the situation in a typically masculine manner. This simple and elegant cinematic device is one of the many impressive and effective visuals in the film.
The film is a comedy about cancer, but it traces the highs and lows of the situation and follows the many complex reactions of others, giving us a truly heart-felt and funny treatment.Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, and Anjelica Huston Director: Jonathan Levine Written by: Will Reiser Running time: 100 mins
Glenn R. Wilkinson is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of Calgary.