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50/50

 

“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;”

-- Emily Dickinson

Cancer interrupts. It cuts to the front of the express line and pays with a check.

Cancer’s a bitch.

Given enough time all odds drop to zero, but when you’re in your late 20s, like the main character Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the new film 50/50, a 50 percent chance to survive a rapidly moving spinal cancer is like a slap across the face. The incongruence of death in the life of a young man in his prime – a genuinely “nice” kid who believes in following the rules, exercises, doesn’t drink or smoke – is an important reminder that disease doesn’t work on our timeline and doesn’t respect the rules we’ve made to live by.

Inspired by true events 50/50 follows Adam through his early ordeal with cancer. The news comes as an absolute shock to the 27-year-old, not only because he lives a clean life, but because he has made no room in his life for death.

Having just started on an adult path, he is struggling forward with a girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who still seems to be mostly just playing grown up. His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) still enjoys a good fart joke. At work at a public radio station Adam is enthusiastic and idealistic, someone who still can feel excited about his news beat of underground volcanoes.

A runner, one day persistent back pain becomes too much for Adam and he makes an appointment to see a doctor. The routine visit darkens suddenly when the doctor informs him that he has a rare but deadly tumor on his spine. They will attempt to reduce the size of the tumor with chemotherapy and, if successful, will surgically remove it.

Adam explains to the doctor that it really isn’t possible that he has cancer. He doesn’t drink, smoke or break laws. He even recycles. (We later learn his worst habit is biting his nails in public). Later, when talking to overbearing Kyle, his friend repeats the script we understand about the disease. Cancer kills the old, but “young people always beat it,” Kyle says.

The film is conscious about representing itself as a “cancer” movie, making references not only to real celebrities who have confronted this disease, but also to films like Terms of Endearment. We all know the stages of grief, repeated by Adam’s too-young counselor Katherine (Anna Kendrick), and have all seen the teary bedside reunions made near the end of life so often on Lifetime movies that they almost have no effect.

Which is why 50/50 is special. The odds of someone actually being moved by a cancer story are fairly remote, but this movie succeeds where countless attempts do not. Even as the film acknowledges that cancer forces its script on everyone – the common chemo hangovers, the lost hair, the fragility of a body wrecked not only by the disease, but also by its cure -- it breaks clichés with every detail.

Adam’s girlfriend does not rise to the occasion, his crass friend is not in denial over his buddy’s cancer, the partial reconciliation between Adam and his estranged, overprotecting mother (Anjelica Huston) is too human and complicated to be a Hallmark moment. Even the film’s marketing is misleading – 50/50 is not so much a buddy film as a movie about the relationships that sustain us, imperfect as they are.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt does the heavy lifting in the film by bringing extraordinary depth to a character that otherwise might have come off as a bit of an everyman. It would have been easy for Gordon-Levitt to over-dramatize Adam’s pain and loss, but instead he gives a nuanced, subtle performance. In the end 50/50 is much more interested in people than cancer and this allows it to be surprisingly tender and funny.


 
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