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50/50 (2011)

Chemotional Wreck

Hey, Seth Rogen! It's over! Stop it!

Ahem. More on that in a minute.

You may cry a lot during 50/50, but don't automatically credit the film for that.  Cancer claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the US alone every year. Chances are, you've known someone who died or is dying right now. And one of Hollywood's dirtiest little secret is that turning on an audience's waterworks is often as easy as playing the right, folksy guitar chords over the right, attractive actor wearing nothing but a hospital gown and a glum expression.

I know, I'm not supposed to speak ill of writer Will Reiser's remarkable triumph over spinal lymphoma. But this is a fictitious account that's been smushed into the Based on a True Story mold. Reiser's on-screen avatar, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is an unlikable priss surrounded by soul-dead monsters--a major detail that actively made me wish this dramatization would forego the real-life happy ending. I was reluctant to see 50/50 because the poster and trailers made the movie look like a dumb buddy-comedy about cancer. It's so much worse than that.

The main problem is that we meet Adam about five minutes before his cancer diagnosis, meaning that it's nearly impossible to tell how much of his snarky bitterness, anger, and intimacy issues have to do with the disease--as opposed to just being characteristics of a lifetime asshole. I found it impossible to connect with him. Adam is such a hipster construct that I don't believe for a second he could have ever existed; if he did (or does), he and his ilk are precisely the reason so many people are concerned about the current generation's prospects in perpetuating our species.

Take cancer out of the equation, and Adam could be the hero of a Starbucks-produced sitcom: He works at Seattle Public Radio; he never learned to drive because of car-fatality statistics; he talks to his Prius-driving artist girlfriend on his iPhone 4; and not once in twenty-seven years has he told a girl he loves her*.

He also has only one friend. That's right--one friend. And if you can tell a man's character by the company he keeps, Adam's bromance with Kyle (Rogen) is proof-positive that there's not a whole lot for the cancer to devour. Kyle is Seth Rogen--because it's impossible for any character played by Seth Rogen to not be Seth Rogen (more precisely, the Seth Rogen archetype). He's a loud, pot-smoking womanizer who says inappropriate things in the manner of a five-year-old boy who's just discovered the word "cunt". What's Kyle's solution for helping a lifelong bud get through his few remaining years? Help Adam shave his head** and hit the bars as the new superhero, Cancer Boy: The Human Pussy Magnet (the name is made up, but the effect is real), of course.

Let's back up a second. Do you know anyone who has one friend? I don't. Even the surliest storm-cloud in my circles has his own confidants, and I find it both sloppy and irresponsible that Reiser doesn't give his protagonist a support group, or even a drinking buddies who freak out and abandon Adam when the going gets tough. Either option would paint 50/50 as a relatable film instead of the lone, Christ-figure fantasy of a kid showily typing away in a coffeehouse.

(To those of you who answered "yes" to my previous question, allow me to pose a new one: Thinking objectively, if you didn't know this person, would you honestly pay to watch his or her life story for 99 minutes?)

Because 50/50 is essentially a rom-com with a dick, Adam meets and becomes romantically involved with his young therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). I was going to type that he "falls in love with her", but watching the movie, I got the impression Adam has never been in love with anything except his image as the Tortured Urbanite with Mommy Issues. Katherine is a doll, the only character in the movie who isn't utterly despicable on some level (except for Adam's Alzheimer's-afflicted dad--do you hear violins? I hear violins.). Adam is her third patient, and she stumbles a lot in establishing their doctor/patient relationship. Katherine's sincerity is a refreshingly alien beacon on the film's barren landscape. My only gripe is that she ultimately falls for Adam's bullshit emo sensibilities in what is supposed to be a happy ending.

If you haven't figured it out yet, Adam beats cancer, just as Reiser did. He also gets the girl and patches things up with his overbearing mother and asshole best friend. 50/50 ends with a scene that is both playhouse and art-house: Kyle dresses Adam's wound with lots of obnoxious, "Oooh, gross!" protestations. Katherine shows up a few minutes later for a date and asks Adam, "What's next?". The camera goes in for a cool, smiling, "Anything's possible! I'm ALIVE!" close-up on Adam's face as we fade into a Pearl Jam song over the end credits. It's the easiest, cheesiest Lifetime-movie ending I've seen in awhile, and I can only hope that director Jonathan Levine had intended this barf-inducing closer to be a chemotherapy metaphor.

Yep, I'm being really harsh on this movie. But not unnecessarily so. A lot has been made of this being the first comedy about cancer, but I'm still waiting for the first smart, emotionally honest comedy about cancer. The film yanks at the same strings as those Sarah McLachlan-backed animal-rescue commercials; it's all surface and no heart. I would love to see a film tackle this serious issue with wit and grace that run deeper than the word "cancer". 50/50's timelines are confusing, its characters are unbelievable, and its gags are top-of-the-head insulting (Q: What's the most effective, morally ambiguous alternative to the Date Rape Drug? A: Emotional blackmail and medical marijuana!).

In case you're wondering, I've lost loved ones to cancer and am related to cancer surviors. Still, this movie did nothing for me--except make me question how a person could, in good conscience, turn their harrowing personal journey into a pot-jokes-and-profanity-laced Cliff's Notes picture. 50/50 doesn't prove that one can make an effective comedy about cancer. It just shows that not all cancer stories are worth telling.

*There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. But we never see Adam as anything more than an insular collection of hipster accessories. He's a modern-day Patrick Bateman whose murderous tendancies are focused inward for reasons we never come close to understanding.

**You bet your ass those clipping shears are covered in Kyle's pubic hair!

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