“It takes a pair to beat the odds”
Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
Synopsis: Inspired by a true story, a comedy centered on a 27-year-old guy who learns of his cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a man who lives life with care. While out jogging, he stops at pedestrian crossings if the sign is against him, even if the roads are deserted. He stresses over punctuality, much to the amusement of his infinitely more laid-back buddy and workmate, Kyle (Seth Rogen). While he’s receiving chemotherapy treatment for a rare form of cancer of the spine from which he has only a 50per cent per cent chance of survival (hence the movie’s title) he meets the wife of a fellow patient who remarks that, from her husband’s descriptions of him, she had expected Adam to be much older. It’s an aspect to his character which probably reflects writer Will Reiser’s own evaluation of his pre-cancer self (the story is inspired by Reiser’s battle with the same form of cancer), and is a call to ‘live your life in the moment’ that more experienced writers might have sidestepped.
But then Reiser isn’t so concerned with capturing the mechanics and realities of suffering from cancer as he is with handling the complex emotions such a devastating illness evokes in sufferers, particularly those who are still in their twenties, and those closest to them. The news is delivered to Adam in a particularly callous manner by a doctor who seems incapable of making eye contact with his patient, and director Jonathan Levine does a good job of capturing the sudden and total isolation experienced by someone receiving the kind of news that could signal the beginning of the end of their life.
Apart from one standard bout of vomiting into the loo bowl, however, Levine and Reiser shy away from showing what the effects of chemo are really like. Loss of feeling in the hands and legs, itching eyes, an ulcerated mouth, are all common symptoms of the treatment; patients are discouraged from visiting crowded places such as bars to lessen the risk of picking up a virus or infection that could disrupt their treatment, and so on. Most of this is absent from Reiser’s treatment, which at times lends 50/50 a Philadelphia-style fakeness.
Adam’s artistic girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) promises to stand by him, but it’s pretty obvious she won’t be around for long once the symptoms of the treatment start kicking in. She can’t even bring herself to attend the treatments with him, not wanting to get immersed in all that negative energy in the hospital. Adam’s older fellow patients, Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), see through her excuses straight away, and you get the feeling that Adam does too, that he’s clinging on to her because even the attentions of an unreliable companion is better than facing his illness alone. His mother (Angelica Huston) is overbearing, and she already has to care for a husband who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. Kyle’s attitude toward Adam is the only one that remains relatively unchanged. He greets the news of his friend’s diagnosis with the appropriate measure of incredulity, and absorbs the fact into the dynamics of their relationship without allowing it to really change anything, other than providing a useful new technique for picking up girls. When he discovers Rachael has been cheating on Adam he loses no time in revealing the fact to his friend.
As Adam’s treatment continues, he develops a tentative relationship with Katherine, a rookie therapist. It’s pretty obvious where their relationship is going, and the conventional way in which Reiser has their relationship develop — or the fact that he even allows it to develop — demonstrates how far he has permitted genre conventions to intrude on his own real life experiences. Of course there has to be some artistic licence allowed in movies like this, and Reiser is to be applauded for plumping for a comedy-drama angle rather than the more obvious melodrama, but surely his experiences furnished him with something just a little more resonant. While 50/50 does have some deeply affecting scenes and some moments of insight, I couldn’t help feeling that any skilled writer could have written this script, and that Reiser’s own battle with cancer therefore contributed little that was unique to the finished product.
Where the film does score strongly is in the relationship between Adam and Kyle, two men who clearly have a great fondness for one another but are typically incapable of articulating their feelings, even when one of them is perched on the precipice. Rogen is in effect playing himself, as he was a friend of Reiser at the time that he was battling with cancer, and it was he who encouraged his friend to write a script based on his experiences once he had recovered. It’s not often a movie will score points for making a point of presenting us with characters who remain incapable of voicing their inner feelings to one another throughout the story, but this is what 50/50 does, and it’s from the way that these two skirt around the real issues that are affecting them that the film draws its emotional resonance.