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50/50 review - the lighter side of cancer

Jonathan Levine's 50/50 opens with Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) jogging breathlessly along a riverbank. He doesn't know it yet, but he has a cancerous tumour growing along his spine and he might die. This is strange, because he seems perfectly healthy – in addition to exercising regularly, he abstains from drinking and holds down a good job. He has his own place and a hot girlfriend, to boot. In fact, he seems to have the kind of life that we all think we’re supposed to have, and then in an instant his world is turned upside down. His doctor informs him in perhaps the most obnoxious way possible of his condition, and what follows is a journey through life, love, friendship, and marijuana. This is one of those films that instantly springs to mind when you think of the word "heartfelt."

At the same time, this is one of those films that fully engages you until it’s over, and then leaves you wondering just how substantial it really was. Keep in mind it’s possible that the bulk of my criticism stems from the fact that I have not yet been personally affected by cancer (I count myself lucky), and therefore cannot decide with full efficacy how genuine this film is. Still, after watching it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I had seen was somehow insincere. Since screenwriter Will Reiser based the film on his own experiences with the disease, I guess I expected something with a little more punch. For example, although Gordon-Levitt is a capable actor, he isn’t given much to work with beyond Adam’s unnerving sense of calm. And despite scoring consistently with dark humour, 50/50 slips again and again into “feel-good comedy” mode with no real payoff.

Healthy in body, not in mind

As indicated by the title, the film hinges on the widely-accepted premise that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin, and that the only way to plow through misfortune is to laugh in its face. The problem with 50/50 is that it fails to sell the “tragedy” part effectively in the first place. The film seems to assume that a healthy lifestyle is comprehensively preventative against cancer – that committing to mundane bodily maintenance is a surefire way to protect yourself. In many cases this is true, but where does spiritual well-being fit into the picture?

Although when we meet him he is physically healthy, Adam is also ostensibly a very stressed-out individual--needlessly, too--as exemplified in the contrast between himself and his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogan), both of whom enjoy full-time jobs as producers at a local public radio station. Kyle is laid back, relaxed, and unconcerned even about showing up on time. Adam is the opposite. He’s that guy who takes life way too seriously; who doesn’t know how to stop and enjoy the small things. In addition, he has a loving mother whom he doesn’t know how to appreciate and a budding relationship with a girl of questionable character (Rachael, played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Adam is healthy in body, but certainly not in mind, and I can’t help but wonder whether his negativity played any role in the development of his disease. This undermined my viewing experience.

I'm With Cancer?

The film isn’t without its merits. Performances are strong all around, especially from Anjelica Huston as Adam’s quietly hysterical mother, and Philip Baker Hall, who plays an elderly chemotherapy patient who introduces Adam both to fresh new perspectives, as well as marijuana-laced baked goods. Awkwardly-romantic therapy sessions with Anna Kendrick’s Katherine are charming, never over bearing, and Adam’s aged, emaciated greyhound, Skeletor – a walking parody of himself – is simply delightful.

The original title of the film was “I’m With Cancer”--indicating that the script had previously focused on Kyle’s hilarious tendency to use his friend’s disease to get laid. As I’ve indicated, that’s exactly the sort of humour from which this film benefits, and I’d have preferred to see more of it. As it is, 50/50 makes for a decent way to spend an hour and a half, even if it never quite comes together. Whether it’s worth the cost of admission remains a toss-up.

Rating:  (Passable)

A more positive prognosis

By Jeffrey Van Camp

While I don't believe 50/50 is a perfect film, I enjoyed it much more than Ben. There's nothing like cancer and nothing worse than getting it at what should be the prime of your life. While I like the funny moments  at the bars, I think it really achieves its best when it's honest about the impacts the disease has for Adam (Gordon-Levitt) and the people around him, including his girlfriend, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Adam is a careful, decent guy, with or without cancer. he deserves more. Luckily in this semi-true story, at least some things work out his way. I'll also second that Anna Kendrick, Philip Baker Hall, and Anjelica Huston headline an amazing cast. 

Rating: (Good)

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