50/50 (Levine, 2011)

50/50

Does it really fall on me to be the dissenting voice on this film? Grimace. I don’t want to be. I want to respect it (in fact I do respect it) for its earnestness and good intentions. But…

But what?

Well, it’s just that I have this vague notion that there used to be a time where a film had to do more than be about a serious or important topic. It had to be well executed. And maybe, just maybe, shouldn’t it still have to be more than just a little bit true?

It’s not that 50/50 is all false. There are moments of truth in it, but if you are going to piggyback on the moral and spiritual seriousness of looking death in the face, you need to do more than get some of the surface details right.

Full disclosure, someone I held dear passed away after a battle with cancer earlier this year, so parts of this film were familiar and parts hit spots that were pretty raw.

As far as the marks it hit…well, my sister-in-law talked about “cancer face,” the look people get when they first hear the news. The film did seem to capture some of that awkward, fumbling cover of the onlooker’s emotions. Ringing true also was the frustration or irritation at people’s needs to tell you what to do and the realization that this actually often has less to with lightening your burden and more to do with dealing with their own frustrations at their feelings of uselessness and helplessness. There’s a nice little moment when Adam (Gordon-Levitt) sees a report on the news about a story he had been working on (and planned to return to after life returned to normal) that captures the frustration at how the world keeps on moving forward even when all forward momentum in your own life has stopped.

For every little detail that rang true, though, there were two that felt more constructed to make a point rather than illustrative of genuine observations. I’m sure that some doctor somewhere may have broken the news to a patient that he or she had cancer in this particular way, but in a film like this, where each experience is tacitly put forward as being representative…no. I am sure, too, that there are teaching hospitals where graduate students do actual casework, but…unsupervised? I don’t think so. (I saw the film with someone who did coursework in psychology in preparation for a possible career in counseling, and he maintained that Anna Kendrick’s character would have been fired three times over.) Neither can I conceive of a top-notch surgeon summarizing the result of surgery in the way that was depicted in this film. In one plot line, Adam strikes up a rapport with two older men who are getting chemotherapy at the same time as him. The film seemed spot on in one scene where Adam observes Mitch with his wife and has to deal with feelings of jealousy, realizing that it is still possible to resent people who are in demonstrably worse situations than you so long as they have any one thing you don’t but want. After getting that bit of business right, they have Adam ask a question that I simply could not believe he (or anyone in his position) would when confronted with an empty chair.

So the film lurches along like that through the end, taking a step forward and two back. Normally I might just bracket the good and recommend it on that level, but by ending where it did and structuring itself the way it was, the film eschews any attempt to try to understand and convey this experience. It makes itself all and only about the surface details (and the outcome of the surgery). Really, there is more depth or authentic probing in just about any 1/2 hour segment of In Treatment, Season Two than you will find anywhere in this film.

The one element of the film I did like a lot was the interplay between Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. Films about male friendships are usually so schizophrenically homophobic that they can only portray guys doing stuff together, never relating. 50/50 is fair in the way it portrays emotional reticence, the socialized way that guys are reluctant to verbalize their feelings (especially to other guys), but it also recognizes that this is not the same thing as not having any. There is a scene towards the end where Adam discovers something in Kyle’s (Rogen’s character) bathroom that is, in its quiet way, as moving as anything we see in the film. (This was also the one place in the film where I felt the writers actually trusted the audience to get it without having someone in the film verbalize the meaning of what just happened.)

50/50 came out of advanced screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival with a 92% “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an ad campaign that seemed to be saying, “hey, if Terms of Endearment and Good Will Hunting both won Oscars, surely a cross between the two with a dash of comedy thrown in is a slam dunk, right?”

Maybe they’re all right and I’m too narrow-minded to appreciate the film for what it is. Or maybe the world is giving the movie a pass because it is trying to do an honorable thing and one always fears looking small and petty in life when one responds to someone or something trying this hard by saying, “That’s nice and all, but, sorry, it just isn’t good enough.”

 

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