Reviewed by James Owen
About once a year, Hollywood puts out a Death Film in which a Bad Person—corporate lawyer, heartless doctor, inattentive father—confronts death and learns to be a Better Person. Usually, the lesson is money isn’t everything and/or the roses should be smelled—think Adam Sandler in the last Seth Rogen Death Film, Judd Apatow’s “Funny People.” A variation is the Death as Noble Conclusion in which a saintly character faces death with dignity and grace, ultimately teaching lessons to lesser people characters. Usually, a gorgeous actress—Debra Winger, Julia Roberts—is stricken with a terminal disease to show us that even movie stars can die, and that should make life worth living?
Can’t we just have a film about death being, per Mrs. Gump, “just a part of life”? A film about the general routine of ordinary people who are dying? That’s the goal of Jonathan Levine’s “50/50”, a film that tackles terminal cancer in such a sublime way that you can…almost forgive its soulless ending. While based on the experience of comedy writer and Seth Rogan pal Will Reiser, “50-50” wisely translates the story into that of average late-twenties Seattlite Adam (Jospeh Gordon-Levitt) who finds out he has a rare form of cancer that can only be tackled with surgery after chemo. He goes from being a journalist for Seattle’ NPR with his artsy girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard, cornering the market in the “be-otch” role) to someone with a death warrant.
Rather than go the Rob Reiner route and take up skydiving and safaris, Adam keeps working on his story about some volcano because, hey, he needs the health care coverage. He gives the girlfriend a chance to bail, but even this bitchy girl cannot honestly turn him away. His friend Kyle (Rogan) wants to take advantage of the situation by scoring sympathy on the dating scene. His mother (Angelica Huston) just becomes more overbearing and intrusive than before. His therapist (Anna Kendrick) is in residency working on her second patient. Pretty much, everyone around Adam is a bit of a mess about this. He’s terrified and worried about them, mostly, because he doesn’t have to become a better person—as he says in the trailer, he’s already pretty okay. There’s no way he could get cancer because “doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and recycles.” But, hey, cancer happens.
Adam confronts all this with his weapon of choice: talking it out. He does not avoid it, his friends do not avoid it, the older guys at chemo (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) do not avoid it. Thankfully, instead of offering teeth-gnashing and melodramatic dialogue, are characters are clever and funny. I won’t retell the best jokes, but Reiser clearly models his screenplay on Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” which specialized in coating serious themes banter about sex and drugs to help them go down a little smoother. Shoot, Judd Apatow’s Death Film—the above-mentioned “Funny People”—tackled death in similar ways. If he had not used it as a self-indulgent home video to show off his marginally-talented wife and kids, and run it on forty minutes longer than necessary, it might have looked like “50/50”.
What makes this film exceptional, rather than simply being better than an Adam Sandler “serious” movie from two years ago, is how the film uses gallows humor to examine death. For example, Adam shares some pot brownies with his fellow chemo patients. We’ve never seen that before, especially in a Seth Rogen movie! But then, Adam walks through the ward, meditating on different patients at different stages of their disease. Adam—still high—walks by someone flat-lining, and all he can do is laugh.
In the movie theater, we laugh at otherwise objectively grotesque and cruel deaths in action and horror movies because it’s a release of our surprise and uncertainty. But we also laugh to mask our fear of the horrible and unknown—which is exactly why Adam laughs at his fellow patient. Levine turns two cinematic clichés into a poignant moment of a character whistling past his graveyard. We don’t see Adam as cruel or simply high because we understand exactly why he’s laughing—it’s the same reason we’ve laughed with a movie about terminal cancer.
The film is full of moments like this, enough to forgive the film for a completely unbelievable and formulaic ending that does everything humanly possible to wreck everything that happened before it. Forget about its implausibility, it’s just disingenuously contrary to the tone of the rest of the film. If you can get past it, “50/50” offers enough complex emotion to be one of the best films of the year. Levitt and Huston deserve nominations. Everyone else in the cast deserves accolades. It would be tough to tackle a comedy about cancer, and certainly the film’s box-office results show the challenges in selling it. Next time out, perhaps if the cancer gave him super powers. That might have been a hit.