I was wary that the movie would be overdramatized or Hollywoodized and would miss a huge opportunity to educate audiences about the young adult cancer world. After viewing the screening in Hartford, Conn. last night, I can assure you that that's not the case. Cheers to scriptwriter Will Reiser, who based the screenplay on his own adventure with cancer at the age of 27.
The film sheds a realistic light on the uncomfortable and frightening dichotomy that is trying to live your life in a world of seemingly invincible, carefree companions, while death stares you right in the face and treatment takes away your confidence and sense of belonging.
Watching it as a cancer patient, I was impressed by the honesty and integrity Reiser wrote into the script. There were very tender and vulnerable moments that only someone who has been there could create. Reiser was able to write those in without being cheesy, forced or over dramatic – rather, just raw and real through powerful, subtle imagery.
***spoiler alert ***
The concept of truth was pervasive throughout the film. Having cancer at any age is scary. Having it at a young age comes with its own extra set of issues. First off, it’s incredibly awkward because no one expects it – not the patient or the friends, family and strangers. This discomfort was well exemplified with scenes of Adam (Gordon-Levitt) trying to break the news to co-workers, friends, his mom and girlfriend. There is no easy way to do that and the resulting emotional reactions by each were classic, funny and heartbreakingly true. Several times throughout the film it’s Adam who is holding up for everyone else and assuring them that he’s “fine,” a word that he often quips back with when everyone is constantly asking him how he’s doing. This was often my answer as well.
Other people awkwardly and rightfully stumble on the “right” thing to say to him. This led to many comedic moments that made me laugh out loud in recognition as people assume he’s going to die and immediately start saying their goodbyes or they just fill the space with awkward silence staring at him trying to figure out what kind of freakish things are happening in his body.
There were many very funny moments in the movie and Seth Rogan’s comedic talents have a lot to do with how well they were pulled off. He is fantastic in this movie, and a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that he really went through the scenario that his character, Kyle, finds himself in. He is the screenwriter’s real life best friend and he was there with him going through his whole cancer treatment process: two single guys in their twenties scrambling to figure out how to handle the scenario.
The important message the movie effectively promotes is that there is no one-size-fits-all way to handle the scenario. There is much absurdity and in that absurdity is a whole lot of space for sick humor because if you can’t laugh at the insanely frightening scenarios that you find yourself in then you’ll never make it out alive. This bodes true for many life scenarios – not just cancer. It was beautiful how these two best friends were comfortable enough to be grossed out, confused, and scared together while still being “regular guys” trying to use the cancer diagnosis to score chicks. Admittedly, I thought the chick-grabbing plot was a little much, but I understand the necessity for balance and for making the characters relatable.
50/50 isn’t a medical documentary. There was a love story and relationship drama. There were bar scenes, drunk and high scenes, and sex. This grows the appeal to a wider audience than those living with or touched by cancer and makes the overall theme of the movie easier to digest. There’s much truth to those scenes as well. Even though they have a disease, cancer patients do more than sit around treating their cancer. We also live our lives and therefore it was appropriate to have some extra plot lines going to create a rounded picture.
Cancer treatment and recovery is so multifaceted. It would be impossible to include everything that comes along with a cancer diagnosis within the time constraints of a film. There were a few themes thrown in for good measure, but I wish they had the chance to more fully develop. These included: the friendships forged with older cancer patients, feeling like an outsider being the young one, the pride hit associated with allowing his mother in, his adopted dog’s role in the healing process, complications with sex and the possibility of infertility. Ovearall, I think the film did as good a job as possible at balancing all of the pieces and focusing on many of the right themes.
The humor in the movie is brave and ballsy, which I really enjoyed. There is one scene where Adam is high on marijuana-laden macaroons given to him slyly by a fellow chemo patient. His exit from the chemo infusion room is a series of blurred and slowed images of the sick patients surrounding him in the hospital corridors and the ironic positive messaging of the murals on the walls, all of which he finds to be ridiculous and hilarious.
He passes a covered body on a stretcher being rolled out from the hospital morgue. Rather than tearing up, he bursts out laughing, separating himself from the situation. There have been many times during the past two years of treatment that I’ve found myself laughing at the crude scenarios I’ve found myself in because to think too hard or too seriously about them was just impossible. The more dire my situation got, the more punch drunk and giggly I got in response.
Though the role was tremendously well acted by Gordon-Levitt, the character of Adam was a bit too vanilla for my me. In much of the movie he seems to just go through the motions, never questioning or really taking action to be a participant in his care. His character remains fairly static and too quickly accepting of his proposed fate.
This was the case until one scene where he has a screaming, thrashing, crying fit behind the steering wheel, windows rolled up, the night before his surgery. It’s the first time that his emotions come to a hilt and I was stunned at how well Gordon-Levitt captured that helpless, desperate moment. I wanted more of those moments in the film, but I suppose if it was littered with them, then that one superb scene wouldn’t have resonated as much as it did.
The isolation Adam – and I’d venture to say all cancer patients – feels is well portrayed through many scenes of him staring into space from his bed or his couch. There thankfully aren’t cliché scenes of him groaning or wrenching in pain and only one requisite vomiting scene, but you can read in his eyes and in his stiff movements that he is wildly uncomfortable and feeling defeated. The cinematography is very effective in accomplishing this as well. These scenes were true to life and much more real than I’ve ever scene a portrayal of a patient. It was very honest: a young man just trying to get through the day and feeling completely disconnected, self conscious, and ridiculously exhausted.
The medical realities and hospital scenes were very well researched and accurate. I have a thick skin and rarely cry at movies, but I admit that the surgery scenes in particular hit very close to home. Watching his possibly last hugs goodbye with his mother, best friend, and mentally ailing father were very difficult to take. The lighting, scene staging and the sterile, ominous feel were very authentic. These scenes cued up difficult memories of my own and elicited many emotions.
The film isn’t done through any narration or switch in perspectives, but rather told from an objective standpoint leaving the audience to be able to put themselves in the shoes of each of the characters. This was a fantastic decision on the part of the writer and director as it allows the point to be made that cancer treatment is not just about the patient. It affects everyone close to that patient and everyone has his or her own ways of reacting and dealing (or not dealing) with the situation. He has the mom who wants to coddle him, the girlfriend who screws him over, and the bumbling best friend who tries his damndest to be normal in a totally abnormal situation.
I wanted to know more about Adam pre-cancer and post-cancer. I felt that his character could have been more well developed so that we had a better taste of what his life was like before: was this diagnosis a dramatic change to his lifestyle? Did he always have that relationship with his mother? Was he always a bit shy and removed? Always a push over? The film tried to establish this a bit by showing a scene of his life as a public radio producer, but it was a weak attempt.
The movie ends abruptly, though sweetly. There is no bow tied neatly to wrap everything up. At first I was disappointed. Then I realized that the ending was perfect because there is no clean resolution to a story like his. Once you have cancer it is always part of your life, the fear of recurrence is always there, and the journey isn’t over when the chemo regimens end and the surgery scars heal. It’s an evolving process and the audience is appropriately left to ponder where that process takes Adam and his relationships.
The film opens to the public this Friday, Sept. 30. I highly recommend checking it out.