56 – 50/50:
So confusingly enough, I did not put this movie at the number 50 position – although it would have made for a nice pun. You’ll notice that I opened with a joke, since we’ve got a very serious topic to talk about with regards to this movie. The Big C, the disease that shall not be named, the subject that’s incredibly uncomfortable to talk about. I’m not going to explain what cancer is, because we don’t need to. It’s that convenient of a dramatic device that TV and film have told us everything we need to know about the disease – and we recently got an Emmy winning five season show about a sufferer. It can be seriously overused as a cheap attempt to pull at the audience’s heartstrings – especially using a child with the disease. So to me, the best stories revolving around cancer are the ones that have some grain of truth to them. The Fault In Our Stars was primarily based on a girl that the author knew. So John Green knew what he was talking about. This movie likewise was written by a man who had the disease and lived to tell the tale – so he dramatized parts of his own life to form the screenplay. And since his best friend is Seth Rogen, there was little trouble in bringing it to the silver screen. The result is the fantastic 50/50.
We’re introduced to Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a twenty-something average Joe. He’s a responsible, law-abiding citizen who doesn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. He has a cordial relationship with his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) and is the straight man to his more clownish best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). Yes, Seth Rogen is also in the film and he’s the screenwriter’s best friend. So he’s essentially playing himself here.
Adam’s not been feeling well, so he goes for a check-up…and it turns out he has a tumour on his spine. It’s a type of cancer that he has a 50/50 chance of surviving. The movie then captures the awkward stage of having to give everyone the news in an ingenious way. It’s especially awkward for him to tell his parents – since his father has Alzheimer’s and his mother is quite demanding. Sure enough, when he breaks the news, she instantly wants to move in. It comes as no surprise when Adam checks himself into therapy in the next scene.
Meet Katherine, his absurdly young therapist, played by Anna Kendrick. Can we all just agree that Anna Kendrick is absolutely perfect in this role? She describes Katherine as “the worst therapist in the world” and all her scenes are a treat to watch. She’s a twenty-four-year-old psychology student, and Adam is only her third patient. Things are already off to a great start as she tries to be comforting and reassuring – despite her poor bedside manner.
Rachel also tries to do her bit, getting Adam a pet dog. Apparently adding the pressure of taking care of another living being to your schedule is supposed to relieve stress. Following the tradition of things that are supposed to make Adam feel better, Kyle throws a party for him that consists of people asking nothing but awkward questions and giving awkward bits of advice. Oh and Kyle using his status as the best friend to score with girls.
Adam starts chemo, but Rachel doesn’t want to go in with him. Still, he makes a couple of friends in the hospital in the form of two old dudes who bring brownies full of weed in with them. Three guesses how Adam passes the next four hours.
He has another session with Katherine and this time he’s starting to express a little bit of bitterness in contrast to the calm of the first few weeks. He snaps at her but apologises, and it looks like they’re making a little bit of progress. Too bad that she is terrible at being comforting with her hands. Adam describes it as “like being slapped by a sea otter”. Cut to Adam and Kyle in the bathroom as Adam decides to pre-empt the chemo and shave his head.
Joseph Gordon Levitt should feel secure that if male-pattern baldness ever strikes, he can definitely pull off a shaved head. But less comforting is the little revelation that the clippers are what Kyle uses to trim his body hair – and that he doesn’t ever wash them.
Things are looking tense when Rachel is hours late to pick Adam up from chemo. Kyle also continues his rather sleazy way of exploiting Adam’s cancer to get dates. But his latest takes him to a gallery opening – where he sees Rachel. Kissing someone else!
Kyle unleashes a volley of curse words that make me feel far more uncomfortable now than when I first saw this movie – and he then directs them at Rachel when he bursts in on a talk between her and Adam. She tries to justify the affair by claiming that it’s been pretty stressful for her – and that they’d been having problems long before and she didn’t want to abandon him when he got sick. At least she’s honest. But after much shouting between her and Kyle, she leaves the house. Kyle tries to cheer Adam up by taking him out to bars and using his cancer to score one night stands. It actually works. After one of his chemo sessions, Katherine sees him waiting for the bus and gives him a lift. Her car interior is a disaster of epic proportions.
Both of them get inappropriately personal with each other. Well, it’s mostly just Katherine who’s being inappropriate – casually mentioning that she checks her ex’s Facebook every day to make Adam feel better about Rachel cheating on him. Adam responds by insisting she pull the car over so he can dump all the trash into the dumpster where it belongs. When she drops him off at his house, she gives him her phone number for emergencies. But of course Adam makes a joke about “scoring your digits” and that is that.
Rachel comes by to pick up her things but it soon turns into an attempt to get back together with Adam. Despite the fact that the film seems to look at her rather cynically, Bryce Dallas Howard gives us the impression that we could sympathise with the girl. After all, she was in a difficult situation. And while what she did was very low, it’s not unreasonable to think that she is genuinely sorry and wants forgiveness. On the flip side, it’s possible she just wants him to forgive her so that she can stop feeling bad. Whatever her reasons, Adam rejects her and sends her away.
As any dramedy worth its salt does, this one takes a turn for the worse. One of Adam’s friends from the hospital passes away, and he descends deeper and deeper into depression. He flat-out tells Katherine that he thinks he’s going to die and wishes everyone would stop sugar-coating it. I personally like how Joseph Gordon Levitt plays this scene. You’d expect such a speech would involve a lot of shouting and crying. He chooses instead to play it with a kind of bitter acceptance. And that makes it work all the more.
It’s time for Adam’s big appointment and unfortunately Kyle is unavailable. And with Adam putting the kibosh on his relationship with Rachel – he has to get his mother to take him. She gets into an argument with the nurse and inspects the doctor’s certificates to see what colleges he went to. But after Adam calls her out, she admits that she goes to a support group every week for parents of children with cancer. And Adam starts to realise that maybe he should return her calls every once in a while. But more pressing issues are the fact that his cancer isn’t responding to the chemo. He has just one option: surgery or death.
The night before the surgery consists of drinking with Kyle, during which Adam takes the keys to his car and goes for a drive. It should also be noted that he does not have a licence. He gets really mad and orders Kyle out of the car, shouting at him for caring more about getting drunk and laid than him. And he calls Katherine and tells her that he wishes she was his girlfriend.
Katherine: “Girlfriends can be nice. You just had a bad one.”
Adam: “I bet you’d be a good one.”
I’m pretty sure that the fact that I watched this at 2am wasn’t the reason I was welling up during this scene the first time. I also realise that I appear to be getting misty eyed at a lot of the movies on this list. If y’all knew me when I was sixteen, you’d know how big a deal it is for me to get moved by a work of fiction.
The next part of the film is relatively simple but so effective. Adam goes about his morning routine, feeding the dog, and cleaning the house. Then he heads off to hospital for his surgery. The way he holds onto his mother just before they wheel him off is another thing that got me when I first watched it. Needless to say, the surgery happens, and the family and friends wait around – Katherine even showing up to hear the news. I can’t describe the tension you feel on the first watch as you’re waiting to hear the results of Adam’s surgery.
Yes, he lives.
We cut to a month later where Kyle is helping Adam apply antibiotic goo on his surgery scar – with his bare finger. Seth Rogen, I sincerely hope this is an invention of the movie, and you didn’t do such a thing in real life. But anyway, Adam has a date with Katherine. She’s notably not his therapist anymore – but it probably would be a good idea to not mention this to her superiors. Ever. Studio executives wanted them to film a kiss between Adam and Katherine, but Joseph Gordon Levitt refused to even film one as a back-up. So the movie ends literally with Katherine saying “what now?”
So there you have it. A cancer movie that is good, non-clichéd, and still very powerful. Movies that deal with diseases, terminal illnesses and disabilities can be hard to do right. For example, 2016 gave us Me Before You which didn’t have the most original story and was only memorable thanks to the great performances. 50/50 has the benefit of being written by a guy who actually went through what Adam did – and as a result I could get into the story. And the screenplay is easily the movie’s strongest point. The film was met with positive reception, and a couple of Golden Globe nominations. And there was also the predictable outrage when it got no Oscars. The outrage was so big that Seth Rogen felt he had to comment on it:
“I think it must be people who have very, very personal connections to the subject matter and just can’t emotionally disconnect from their experience…I respect that. But we found for the most part is that people like to laugh at tragedy. It makes them feel better.”
Grades now? As a note, I’ve decided to do away with the ‘Special Effects’ tab. Really, any notable effects can go under the ‘Visuals’.
Story? I said earlier that the screenplay was the strongest part of the film, and that’s absolutely right. It’s a non-patronising and very realistic look at a young man suffering from cancer. A+
Characters? The characters feel like real people – and I like the attention given to Adam’s parents in particular. Some characters I felt weren’t given enough. For example, I think Kyle could have been called out a lot more for his attitude (even with the reveal). Rachel too was a little underdeveloped. B
Performances? Joseph Gordon Levitt has been steadily proving himself as one of the best young actors working today. Ever since his (500) Days of Summer breakout, every performance gets better and better. I tend not to rant about awards nominations – but here’s one performance that really should have been recognised. I also make no secret of the fact that this is my favourite Anna Kendrick role. A+
Visuals? A nice polished indie look to it. The story is the main point and the understated visuals are there to compliment it rather than take attention. B
Anything Else? N/A
Indie dramedies are the theme of the moment – my next review is Sunshine Cleaning.