There's really no subject more fearful than stage four back cancer. Actually...technically...there is no such disease. This does not stop Kyle (Seth Rogen) from using his friend Adam's recent cancer diagnosis to try to score chicks for them both. Kyle divulges the "back cancer" to a bookstore clerk, playing the sensitive friend to help his friend, "the little guy over there in the cap," purchase self-help books. This wins Kyle a date with the clerk. But before more ill-gotten nookie can be had, the date is interrupted when Kyle sees Adam's girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) getting friendly with a another man at a gallery show while his ill friend lays forlornly on his couch waiting for her. As identified by Kyle, Rachael is another Big C in Adam's life. While not exactly a paragon of selfless friendship, Kyle is at least loyal and a rare source of candor. The friend and soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend are just two dubious parts of Adam's very shaky support system, as he faces a battle with a malignant tumor growing along his spine in 50/50.
One can only hope that screenwriter Will Reiser had a more reliable network of support when dealing with his own cancer. Reiser was diagnosed with malignant schwannoma at the age of 24. It’s the same rare form of the disease that afflicts Adam in 50/50, the ungainly nomenclature only a part of the surprise of his diagnosis when he is tested because of recurring back pain. Of course, it’s the cancer itself which is the difficult thing to comprehend. Adam has to stop his doctor, who’s speaking into a micro tape recorder with the dispassionate speed of a radio announcer running through a list of commodity prices, when he hears the word malignant. After the doctor repeats the feared word and delineates the grim prognosis, Adam's perspective toward the physician goes out of focus and ensuing words are reduced to formless sound; both constitute a kind of shocked perceptive static. When he can speak, it is still from disbelief. "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I recycle., " he says.
While 50/50 is not strictly Reiser's story, it's informed by his experience in mainly the best of ways, particularly with the hospital sequences. This ranges from the bewilderment of facing the end of one's existence while dealing with doctors, nurses and technicians for whom your potentially terminal disease is but another case, another day at the office, to the juxtaposition of prosaic and downright funny moments amidst the most profound of struggles. The humor is often provided by Kyle, as when he provides typically unfiltered commentary when Adam decides to stay one step ahead of his chemotherapy and cut his hair before it falls out. The hair, as it turns out, was no great loss, as Adam was already suffering with a regrettable sensitive boy haircut, this part of a somewhat meek, nail-biting persona (we see him early on refuse to jog through an empty intersection against a "don't walk" signal while a female jogger strides past him without a second thought) that finds more of an edge in its adversity.
Adam does find some consolation with chemotherapy buddies, Alan and Mitch (felicitously casting here, with Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer). "C'mon, get high with us, man!" implores the 80-ish Alan, offering Adam some of his wife's pot macaroons. The normally sober Adam relents. The montage in which he leaves chemotherapy and walks out of the hospital, blissfully stoned, is one of the film's best. Adam laughs while walking by the would-be inspiration of a cancer ward mural and then encounters an orderly pushing a gurney that bears not a patient, but a corpse in a body bag. It's a moment in which most mainstream films would have their character scared straight back to sobriety. Adam walks a few steps with an ambivalent look on his face until he's clear of the gurney. Then he begins to giggle. There's a lot of 50/50's spirit in that moment. It's not a matter of disrespect at the sanctity of life (or dying), just an honest acknowledgement of the absurdity that often lurks in unexpected places along the way .
Gordon-Levitt, a pliable, intuitive actor, plays the full gamut of emotions Adam is made to experience without ever trying too hard to sell any of them. This is as true of his typically polite, low-key personality as it is of the veritable primal scream he delivers from the seat of Kyle's car, finally going off on his friend and expressing all the pent up anger and fear on the eve of surgery which is essentially do or die.
Will Reiser not only fought the same cancer that besets Adam in 50/50, but also had a Seth-Rogen-type friend whose ability to find the humor in his situation was apparently a source of great light amid the darkness. In fact, he had Seth Rogen himself as a friend, the two having met on the set of Da Ali G Show. One can't help wonder if Rogen's shortcomings as a friend have been amplified slightly for the sake of the film version of the friends' story. One would hope that Rogen never kept Reiser, weak from chemotherapy, up late for the hope of bedding women they picked up, as Kyle does to Adam in 50/50, but who knows. Certainly, Reiser's script overreaches itself is when it feels the need to telegraph Kyle's virtue as a friend. Adam is more than a little surprised to find one of those self-help books in his friend's house, complete with underlinings and annotations. He should be surprised, it's not a realistic touch. The minor revelation, which mirrors the arc of Rogen's character in Knocked Up, at first joking off the responsibilities of impending parenthood, before dutifully hitting the pregnancy books, is hardly necessary. Childish egocentrism aside, Kyle's loyalty to and love for Adam had been well enough established by the time the book is found.
However real to life, Kyle is another chance for Rogen to play the wisecracking man child. He may have little else in him, but the actor (and producer here) continues to wear it well. His irreverence, along with the developing relationship between Adam and his feckless therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) provide 50/50 with a necessary buoyancy to counteract the weight of the Adam's struggle with the dread disease. Ultimately, as Seth Rogen, Seth Rogen is winningly Rogen-like.
Some of Kyle's most humorous broadsides occur at the expense of Adam's girlfriend, Rachael. This is especially the case after she is found out cozying up to the odd, Jesus-like figure at the gallery show at which Kyle photographs her in the act with his cell phone camera. She might not deserve the caustic appellation Kyle hurls at her (at the expense of his offended date with the woman from the book store), but the struggling painter is not going to score high on the balloting for girlfriend of the year either. As Rachael, Bryce Dallas Howard is given a capacity for empathy roughly consistent with her China doll beauty. Kyle gets to have his fun when the girlfriend is caught in her deception. Adam too gets his moment of revenge when telling Rachael to "get the fuck off my porch," when she attempts a later reconciliation. However, when Adam and Kyle subsequently go about a ritualistic destruction of one of Rachael's less-than-inspiring canvases with everything from projectiles to fire, a sequence in which director Jonathan Levin even resorts to a gleeful split screen, Rachael seems to have become the embodiment of cancer, stage four malignant girlfriend, excised, fortunately, more easily than that tumor growing along Adam's spine. Meanwhile, 50/50 has temporarily, as the English say, lost the plot.
|Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt exorcising one of the Big C's in 50/50. If only getting rid of cancer were this easy.|
There's no such lack of subtlety in the two other relationships that play out with Adam and the women in his life. As a therapist, Adam draws the fresh-faced Katherine, whom Anna Kendrick referred to in a recent interview as "...what I lovingly referred to on set as the worst therapist in the world." She at first seems just another almost laughably inept member of Adam's would-be support system. Still working on her doctorate, Adam is but her third patient. As with Natalie Keener in Up In The Air, the therapist is a young woman whose intelligence surpasses her life experience. In both films, Kendrick navigates that awkward gap in a brittle but sympathetic fashion.
Adam would seem to prefer that his mother (Anjelica Huston) stay out of the picture all together, so intent does she seem to act like...well, a mother. Huston is another sure bit of casting, a bundle of frustration and repressed affection. One of 50/50's great strengths is the fleshing out of this relationship. We see a weary Adam ignore a call from his mother on his cell phone, only to hear his land line ring a few moments later. She also embarrasses her son at a doctor's office visit, taking issue with a nurse and complaining at the temperature. Oh, mom. But Adam is also reminded by Katherine, able finally to transcend psychology textbook bromides as a rapport develops between the two, that his mother has "a husband who can't talk to her and a son who won't." She continues, not without a sly smile, "Doesn't that make you kind of a dick.."
The natural, well-observed and sometimes prickly course of these two relationships help 50/50 build considerable emotional momentum. After that scream in Kyle's car after his first very memorable few hundred yards of driving, Adam finally utilizes the private cell phone number Katherine had earlier given him, that simple exchange one of many difficult and often funny negotiations the two make in the progression from hopeless therapist and possibly dying patient to something more deeply satisfying. It's simple, tender, but powerful conversation. Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick play it to near-perfection and could hardly be more likable. The crescendo follows shortly thereafter as Adam is prepared for surgery the next morning. Panic sets as the anesthesia is administered but fortunately the other woman in Adam's life is right where she needs to be. Only the most hard of heart will be unaffected by this particular mother and child reunion.
Aside from the story of one man's struggle with cancer, what 50/50 wisely demonstrates is how most of us react to tragedies without by gauging them against our personal universes within. Rare is the person who can set aside their own emotions and be exactly what another person needs in a time of crisis. Adam has no such saintly figure on which to rely, much as he comes to know how much his mother and friend love him, just how much they can be counted on. Faced with a host of inept consolers, the main, growing light in his dark tunnel is the relationship developing with Katherine, if he can live long enough to explore it.
On the strength of Levitt's performance, with a story that avoids veering into sentimentality or grimness, 50/50 is easily the feel-good cancer film of the year. You'll laugh. You'll probably cry. I'm quite serious. Even more serious than stage four back cancer.