Sunday, October 2, 2011

Laughter and Medicine: 50/50

There’s no getting around the fact that 50/50 is a cancer movie, but that’s such misleading terminology to saddle the film with. This is no standard, overly weepy disease-of-the-week tearjerker. Instead screenwriter Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine approach the subject in a sneakier, more palatable way, sidling up to the material in a tender, lightly comic mood that remains palpably perceptive to the main character’s emotions. It’s funny and likable – and, yes, eventually earning tearfulness – precisely because it feels so honest and open. This isn’t a movie of magical thinking or cold, hard reality. This is a movie that creates a character that is an individual, recognizable and distinct, and then has the truthfulness to portray his reaction to the disease convincingly and with nuance.

It takes its approach from Adam, the main character played with wonderfully underplayed charm and quiet restraint by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He goes in to the doctor with a minor complaint and, an MRI later, is told that he has a tumor on his spine. It’s cancer. As the doctor continues to talk the soundtrack fuzzes out his words while the focus pulls away until all we can clearly see is Adam’s ear in the foreground. Cancer. What a frightening word. There’s never a good time to hear that diagnosis, but he’s only 27. He has his whole life in front of him, or at least he did that morning. Now, everything is scarily uncertain.

He tries to remain calm, and for a while it seems that he is. His best friend (Seth Rogen, playing the Seth Rogen part) tells him that young people beat cancer all the time. His 50/50 odds are actually great. Besides, cancer could help him pick up chicks, an especially important fact since his relationship with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) has been a little cold recently.

This all seems to be dubious advice, but at least having such a reliable goofy friend around keeps his spirits high. His mother (the terrific Anjelica Huston), upon hearing the news, worries about him and calls him often, but at least he can talk her out of wanting to move in with him. (Besides, she’s already dealing with her husband’s (Serge Houde), Adam’s father’s, Alzheimer’s.) With all of these people in his life, varying reactions to the cancer surrounds Adam. He’s the calm at the center of the storm.

Enter his therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). She’s only 24 and not technically an experienced doctor. (Actually, she’s still working on her doctorate.) He seems suspicious of her youth and gets her to confide that, yes, she’s new at this. He’s her third patient. He tells her he feels calm, even “good.” He’s not sure that he even needs therapy, but there’s something in the sparkling atmosphere of caring that his visits engender that keeps him coming back. It’s obvious that they like each other, but their relationship has to remain strictly professional.

For a while, 50/50 plays out like a fairly standard R-rated buddy comedy (the raunch is a bit too much at times) with a light dusting of romantic comedy. But every so often, the cancer is inevitably brought to the forefront. Adam goes in for chemotherapy and visits with two chatty older gentlemen (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer). Their spirits are high – they’re high off some special macaroons too – but sitting there in the hospital brings in a level of cold reality that the rest of the outside world seems to march on without. Throughout the film, Adam’s sense of calm gives way to difficult realizations and increasingly turbulent emotions. He’s struggling.

By the time the film reaches a point where the cancer can no longer be denied, when there is one final push into weepier territory, the tears are earned. I won’t spoil whether or not he survives, but to see a young man close to death is moving and upsetting, all the more so for having spent so much time in his life. Reiser’s script is semi-autobiographical and benefits greatly from the feeling of verisimilitude that brings. Gordon-Levitt brings this script to life with such vitality and likability. He’s one of the very best actors, if not the best actor, in his age range and here is given a slam-dunk Oscar bait role. He doesn’t treat it as such, though. There’s such a lived-in charm and an intimate immediacy to his performance that it helps make the encroaching pressure of the disease feel all the more wounding.

Near the end of the film, as Adam gets wheeled into an operation, we see his mother and father, his best friend, and his therapist sitting in the waiting room, nervously trying to hold it together while waiting for news. It’s the kind of scene that we’ve seen played out in just about every film with disease at the center, but here it feels more immediate than usual. It’s not a cheat for cheap emotion. We know these characters. We know how they’ve dealt with the cancer just as much as we’ve come to know Adam. Laughter instead of tears has been a light distraction from the harsh truth of the situation. But now the laughs have faded away, and we’re all waiting to hear if he’ll be okay.

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