Sunday, October 2, 2011
A Positive Prognosis: 50/50
Are there too many cancer movies, or not enough? It’s tempting to say the former. Each year it seems there’s at least one new movie about someone getting the disease, fighting it and – depending on whether its an uplifter or a tear-jerker – surviving it or dying from it. There are no surprises anymore. The arc of the cancer movie is as familiar as the disease itself. Yet it isn’t anywhere near as prevalent, and maybe that’s the actual problem. When one considers that half of men and one third of women are expected to develop cancer (of various significance) in their lifetime, it’s clear that cancer is underrepresented at the movies. The result is that cancer rarely factors on the big screen outside of full-blown Cancer Cinema. Just as mainstream American movies about homosexual romance tend to be more about homosexuality than romance, movies that include cancer are inevitably about the disease. In Cancer Cinema, the afflicted subject never starts a new business, solves a murder mystery, pulls a casino heist or does anything else that might suggest cancer was just an element of life. No, the disease must define them. To a Hollywood screenwriter, not obsessing over a character’s cancer would be like ignoring Superman’s ability to fly.
50/50, written by Will Reiser, doesn't offer much of an exception to the trend. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cancer Character – his friends call him Adam – it has all the hallmarks of the too familiar sub-genre, starting out with the fact that Cancer Character is 100 percent healthy until all of a sudden he isn’t (Cancer Characters are never smokers, you might have noticed). Quite predictably, 50/50 has scenes in which Cancer Character receives the bad news and then spreads the word to people who don’t know how to respond. It has scenes in which Cancer Character is bravely yet tragically upbeat about the diagnosis, refusing to acknowledge the anger inside him. It has scenes in which Cancer Character, who of course is bald by this point, goes to counseling sessions that borrow from the equally familiar Help Me Help You sub-genre wherein Adam goes from stonewalling, to storming out of a session in anger, to purging all those inner demons in a moment of triumphant catharsis. And so on. Even when 50/50’s narrative goes somewhere slightly novel, replacing the usual dutiful girlfriend with the selfish, irresponsible lying bitch girlfriend, its intentions can be spotted a mile away. We know instantly that Cancer Character’s girlfriend Beth will flake out on him because 1) she has creepy eyelashes, 2) she’s played by Bryce Dallas Howard, 3) she promises to stick by him when he initially gives her an out and 4) she doesn’t like to give head. And yet for all the ways that 50/50 is like so many cancer movies we’ve seen before, it differs in one ultimately redeeming way: Cancer Character’s biggest problem isn’t that he has cancer. Not quite.
Admittedly, it’s a distinction that you have to squint to recognize, but the prevailing challenge that Adam must overcome in 50/50 isn’t cancer itself but the loneliness that it creates. After his diagnosis, Adam has trouble relating to people. His girlfriend gets him a dog he doesn’t want. His mother (Anjelica Huston) gives him concern he doesn’t want. His best friend, Seth Rogen’s Kyle, encourages him to use cancer as a hook to meet girls, which gives his disease attention he doesn’t want. And his therapist, Anna Kendrick’s Katherine, gives him encouragement he doesn’t want. All of these people mean well, even the selfish girlfriend, but their attempts to support Adam only make him feel more alone. No one around him understands what he’s going through, physically or emotionally, no matter how hard they try. And none of them grasp that it’s of little comfort to learn that one’s feelings of abnormality are perfectly normal. Cancer is taking over Adam’s lifestyle even faster than the tumor his spreading along his spine. His chance of survival may be 50/50, but at this rate his self-identity doesn’t stand a chance.
That 50/50 is the rare movie to give as much attention to cancer’s devastating effect on lifestyle as to its devastating effect on life is, I suspect, a stroke of luck more than a product of daring. This is, by design, a rude yet lighthearted comedy that has no interest in portraying cancer at its worst. But while it would be fair to criticize 50/50 for tiptoeing around grimness at every opportunity, I wonder if in its squeamishness it makes a tentative step in the right direction. At this point it isn’t just movie fans who have grown tired of Cancer Character clichés on the big screen, real people with cancer are tired of having those clichés ascribed to them, too. In its own way, 50/50 hints at the very real desire of so many cancer patients to keep the disease from becoming their identity. When Adam’s doctor is as uncaring as possible in delivering the bad news, yeah, it’s a sign that the movie is trying to make us feel sorry for Adam by any means necessary, but at the same time the scene conveys the shittiness of being an individual one moment and a statistic the next.
Directed by Jonathan Levine, the strength of 50/50 is the performance of Gordon-Levitt, who reminds us why he has the stuff to be on the A-list and also why he isn’t there already. To his detriment, one of Gordon-Levitt’s greatest skills is the ability to be ordinary. It’s what makes him the perfect modern twenty-something everyman in (500) Days of Summer and the perfect modern twenty-something with cancer – rather than just a Cancer Character – in 50/50. Gordon-Levitt is unfailingly relatable, never untouchable, even in moments of major emotion, and he can adjust between happiness and darkness so gracefully that it can be easy to forget how distinctly different those moods really are. In 50/50, Gordon-Levitt embraces Adam's misery – his full-throated scream near the end of the film is raw and heartbreaking – but never at the expense of letting the character get lost inside his disease.
The film concludes (big spoiler warning) with the cancerous tumor removed and Adam’s identity still intact, and it’s to the credit of the film, and Gordon-Levitt’s charming chemistry with Kendrick specifically, that an entirely cancer-free sequel exploring the relationship between Adam and Katherine doesn’t seem like a crazy idea (which isn't to suggest it'll happen). “Now what?” Katherine asks Adam at the start of what will be their first post-cancer date, and that's the question I have for Cancer Cinema, which must aspire to let cancer patients be something other than cancer trademarked victims and heroes. 50/50 isn’t the cure for the common cancer movie, but there’s enough here to leave hopeful that someday we might find one.