“That’s your Make-A-Wish? To drive?”
Cancer can be funny.
How people with life threatening diseases can deal with the constant drone of, “You’re going to be fine” or “You’ll get through this” or “What you’re feeling is normal” has always been something that fascinated me. Personally—I can only guess having luckily never been put through such a situation—I’d probably clock the third person or at the very least blow up in their face with a profanity-laced diatribe about how pity only makes the nightmare worse.
Why can’t we brighten things up with levity? Why can’t we embrace the defense mechanism and try to get by with laughter? Haven’t we been inundated with the fact it’s the best medicine all our lives? Let’s use it, because we’re all dying. How long it takes to reach the end is the only unknown variable to the equation. So, if we know it’s coming sooner than later, let’s at least call a spade and spade and acknowledge the worst. Then we can begin to cope and learn to believe in miracles.
This is the reason I would seriously say Andrew Airlie may be the best part of Jonathan Levine’s film 50/50. Written as a semi-autobiographical account of his own bout with cancer by Will Reiser, Airlie’s Dr. Ross is a fantastically constructed caricature of the mechanical medical professional we should all wish to have. Talking with jargon consisting of words possessing a ten to one ratio of consonants to vowels, he’s more interested in speaking about the rare disease as a case study into his tape recorder than letting his patient understand what it means.
Here is this devastating, impossible situation and instead of being coddled and reassured, 27-year old Adam hears malignant tumor and all turns fuzzy while his doctor subtly geeks out about just how intriguingly rare his specific form of cancer is. He gives the facts and doesn’t apologize for being the messenger—to me this is a stand-up guy whose lack of compassion is a welcome breath of fresh air. The awkward invasion of personal space and never-ending polite blathering is why we have friends and family.
It’s hard to imagine James McAvoy in the role of Adam after seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance. Hitting all the beats perfectly, this rising star can do it all. From the self-pity to the self-loathing, the destructive to the humbled, the joyful hope to the bleak reality, his Adam embodies each crank of the conveyor belt as it pulls his roller coaster car to the top of the hill before letting go. A fifty percent survival rate isn’t half bad—sorry for the bad joke—but the abyss of death doesn’t play the odds. Whether your chance of survival is 99% or 1%, that lingering fear isn’t something that can be shaken.
And it isn’t only Adam’s cross to bear; his support group must cope and handle the news in its own way. Between a goofball lover of sex in Kyle (Seth Rogen), an over-protective mother already taking care of an Alzheimer-riddled husband (Anjelica Huston and Serge Houde), and an only partially checked-in girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rachael) whose fear is noticeably stronger than that of her dying boyfriend, the range of emotions runs the gamut.
Gordon-Levitt shines through every situation, though—biting his nails as he declares he’s okay, sarcastically biting back when uncomfortable as the pent-up anger builds within his clenched jaw, and finding the little things to smile at when all hope appears lost. It’s a performance that should garner some Oscar buzz, existing inside a heartwarming tale about life, love, and discovering what truly matters. Even a non-smoking, no-drinking, runner can find the bad luck of a genetic killer trapped in his DNA. Sometimes we’re simply dealt a crappy hand and must somehow find a way to push through.
Making light of the chaos doesn’t have to belittle the situation either. In fact, such a thing could actually make it easier to handle. And for a guy like Reiser, who produced the likes of “Da Ali G Show”, what better way to express himself is there than through comedy? Life goes on and is for the most part pretty hilarious, so why not speak the truth and shed light on the tabooed checkpoints of a young man’s journey through counseling, chemotherapy, and heartache?
The supporting cast is a boon for it as Howard plays the downer of the bunch, a colder, harsher version of the role she played in Hereafter to wondrous praise by me; Huston comically bounces between over-bearing, misunderstood, and completely selfless inside a seemingly selfish shell; and Rogen does what he does best by lacing the horrors with tiny morsels of optimism, working hard to get his buddy laid and not minding the overflow of attention to get some himself. Gordon-Levitt adds his own humor too with gentleness and steely determination, his early impression of Rogen hilarious and his interactions with fellow cancer patients Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer highlights of the film.
But what really works above all else—both to elicit smiles and choke up tears—is the slow opening of Adam’s soul to his therapist Katherine. Played radiantly by Anna Kendrick with a brilliant mix of youthful naivety and steadfast drive to help, her involvement is crucial to exposing the heart hidden beneath the comedy, propelling what could become a farcical joke to the layered drama it is.
50/50 overcomes its limitations and uses them to do so. It makes cancer less the dangerous subject we all try to ignore and more the rallying point for a person we love and cherish. A human tale that hits upon the complexities of life and death, love and hate, luck and fate, Levine and Reiser crafted a winner. It’s one of the best films of the year and I believe should find itself a willing audience to take a plunge into its offbeat rhythm. It may also help some people find their own ways to cope with similar situations—Reiser’s catharsis becoming a piece of art to assist others in finding their release and acceptance in order to overcome as he did.