Misogyny At The Movies: A 50/50 Film Review

I am going to break with my normal habit of assiduously avoiding spoilers in my review of the film 50/50. 

This film is aptly named as I half liked it and half disliked it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is worth seeing in the film if nothing else is. He plays an introverted character closing in on himself when he is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that gives him 50/50 odds of survival. From his first moment on screen I was struck by how much Gordon-Levitt was embodying a character that was a significant departure from the other roles I have seen him in. His face has a blank, smart, unassuming, pale-faced innocence here. He is a soft spoken, self-involved, quietly brooding, generally unassertive character who enters every scene with a look of curiosity and passive expectation of a stimulus which will evoke an emotion. He is always waiting on others to prod him into some kind of response. When he attains his moments of cathartic outburst they are childishly intense cries from a pained, cruel, immature heart lashing out in full victimhood. It is a rather raw and bitter, unsweetened, picture of one young man’s smoldering internal struggle to come to terms with mortal threat.

Despite its generally bleak and bottled up protagonist, the film manages to be deftly funny throughout. The tonal alternations between comedy and drama are often natural. Oftentimes however Seth Rogen’s abrasive, domineering, remarkably immature best friend character attacks scenes with all the gracefulness of a sledgehammer. I generally like Rogen but he was jarringly overbearing and obnoxious throughout the film. This sort of works because most of the characters are pretty awful, but I am only halfway convinced the filmmakers wanted us to find these people so hard to emotionally connect to and like. Every one is abrasive in his or her own way, including the sympathetic older cancer patients (Matt Frewer and the ever-watchable Philip Baker Hall)  who befriend our young hero.

Where the film becomes almost unwatchable is when its female characters are on screen living out the fantasies of misogynists. Bryce Dallas Howard and Anna Kendrick are gorgeous and give fine performances but their characters are so pathetically drawn as to be wince inducing. From the outset we are set up to get it that Howard is too selfish to cope with Gordon-Levitt’s illness as much as she feels obliged to and desires to. Howard puts a lot of nuance into her brittle, jerky, always off-the-mark character but the script rakes her character through the mud rather cruelly. Or, more precisely, the guys, upon catching her cheating on Gordon-Levitt, berate her viciously. And when she comes back looking for sympathy, we are “treated” to a sort of vindictiveness porn, as a pitiless Gordon-Levitt refuses her desperate attempts to get him to take herback by cursing her out and then by gleefully joining Rogen in creatively destroying a painting she made for him.

The undercurrent to the film of Rogen jealously wanting Gordon-Levitt back from the vile wench who has captured his heart is the worst kind of “bromance” (read: schlubby homoeroticism)—the kind rooted in hatred of the female and rivalry for other men’s attention against women’s intrusions.

On the other side of the spectrum, Anna Kendrick’s 24 year old graduate student therapist for Gordon-Levitt is cloyingly servile. She is a ball of non-threatening insecurities. She eagerly falls all over herself in scene after desperate scene trying to make an aloof and resistant Gordon-Levitt happy. Oh, what lengths she will do to help him if only she can figure out how. She’s so naive and clumsy and ignorant, seemingly working off a two hour lecture’s worth of training in dealing with patients. She has no strengths or life outside of her single-minded devotion to her self-absorbed, virtueless patient who simply withholds from her until she is weak-kneed and in heat in love with him, and her ex-boyfriend who she pathetically stalks on Facebook. Gordon-Levitt finally warms up to her, but only does so when it’s a matter of taking more control of her than she ever shows of him (rudely fixating on the junk in her car and taking it upon himself to clean it for her) and then pushing her to violate her professional ethics and get involved with him, which she is dying to do.

And finally in the end, of course, she totally does as soon he’s all cured of that cancer and no longer needs any therapy and now she can be the super-girlfriend who rescues him and shows him that not all girlfriends have to be bad.

Combining Howard’s frigid, fickle, ungrateful, insufficiently nurturing bitch in need of a good humiliation and Kendrick’s manic pixie dream girl of unconditional cloying support, we are left with an alternatingly grim and pathetic take on women when all is said on done. As an aside Angelica Huston’s mother character is, again, well-played, but her bossy pure love and concern for her son is met with near-complete indifference and mild annoyance from Gordon-Levitt. Here and there he is called out on his maltreatment of her but nothing changes either in that relationship or in his approach to the other women who preoccupy him in the rare moments he is not just blankly staring into the void and having it stare back at him.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Timid Atheist

    I’d been thinking about watching this, because I do like Seth Rogan, but now I’m not so sure I want to. I don’t mind the occasional sexist jokes or commentary when it’s coming from a character that is obviously sexist. But if the entire treatment of female characters in a movie is sexist, I’m less willing to go along with it.

    And honestly I’m sick of the bromance films. Yes, it’s awesome that a guy has a best friend. But why must that mean he put that friend over or under a love interest? Can’t there be equal footing for these things?

    Same goes for films with ladies as the protagonists. I’m not a fan of showing men as just an after thought until the one is found and then he’s the end all, be all.

    I’m a fan of balance, I suppose.

    Thank you for the review. I honestly don’t mind spoilers when it’s a movie I’m curious about. Often times I’ll ruin book endings for myself by reading the last chapter after I’ve found myself sufficiently hooked within the first 5-10 chapters. I’m not sure if other people do this or not, but I can’t help myself.

  • mike c.

    I listened to an interview of the writer of the movie on the radio show “Fresh Air” and the story is somewhat autobiographical. It turns out that the writer’s best friend is Seth Rogan and Seth was the prime motivator for making the movie. The writer claimed that the movie is mostly accurate and the dialog was close in spirit to what was said. The writer did say however, that in real life his girl friend stuck with him and he patterned the movie girl friend after a composite of friends who (apparently) couldn’t handle his illness. I’ll watch the movie when it’s on cable or netflix, but I’m not a big fan of bromance movies or of Seth so there’s no rush.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      So rather than tell the true story of his girlfriend’s model of support for a boyfriend with cancer, he creates an amalgam of his (probably mostly male) friends’ hostility and represents it in female form. So, a guy loved and cared for by a woman who went the extra mile turned around and made a woman an embodiment of selfishness. All while assiduously trying to be as true to life as he could in representing each bit of dialogue with his best guy friend. Authenticity in representing bromance is vital and makes the movie about truth. Misogynistically representing women and completely disrespecting the authentic love of his own experience from his girlfriend is what then? A female sacrifice on the alter to bromance?

      So baffling.

  • Doug

    Sometimes women are selfish and bad, just like men. Sometimes they are are insecure and pliant, just like men. I’m not real sure it’s misogynistic to portray them this way, any more than it’s misanthropic (in the literal, not dictionary sense) to portray unsympathetic male characters. Using the criteria of this review, Thelma and Louise would have to be considered a sexist film, but I don’t think of it that way. Instead, I think of it as portraying an aspect of human behavior (in this case, male human behavior) that’s accurate, if exaggerated and a bit one-sided.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Absolutely, women can be as bad as men in complicated, interesting ways. If the film had treated these women with the respect of making the women actual human beings with flaws, rather than pinatas for misogyny, then it would have been much more interesting.

  • http://structureseinplay.blogspot.com Andrew

    I think you are quite right about JGL’s contribution to the film being the only worthwhile thing happening, and all of the interesting thoughts on mortality and family are predicated on him. I actually came across this blog after googling “50/50 misogyny” after watching the film to see, hopefully, if there were exceptions to the generally positive reviews from the mainstream media and vaguely leftist critical establishment. I also cringed at the film’s repetition of sexist anachronisms, from the one-dimensionally pathetically self-involved bad girlfriend to the one-dimensionally pathetically doting good girlfriend, and the oh-so-popular since the 40 Year Old Virgin nice-guy-is-taken-out-by-brofriend-to-the-bar-to-get-laid-and-the-girl-falls-for-the-scheme-but-nice-guy-realizes-that’s-not-what-he-wants that came in the middle.

    On another level, though, I thought that Seth Rogan’s contribution was the only honest part of the movie; his dialogue was based on real life and he really lived it. And really, it is an unintelligent sexist Hollywood movie, so he is a kind of hero to declare that the women are only worth sleeping with, and the only interesting conversation—relating to friendship, work, life, death, anything other than sex—occurs between men, and that the world of this movie is to be filled with superficial, misogynist jokes. Because that’s what movies are and, I hope, that is not how he really lives his life.

  • Emily

    Oh god. Thank you .

  • chloe

    I find it interesting how people only attack movies that could in any way be interpreted as a little hint of POSSIBLE sexism towards women, but no one ever speaks out when the media shows blatant sexism towards men. It seems that most women view equality as a one-way street.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      The movie treats women with contempt from start to finish. It’s more than just hints.

  • Antoinette

    I just watched this movie and was so offended by the level of misogyny that I searched on the internet to see if anyone had a similar reaction. I mean, the plot centered almost as equally on woman-bashing as it did on the protagonist’s struggle with cancer :/. Thanks for writing this; many times, as a woman, I feel like I am running into a brick wall when I try to explain to others the misogyny I see in movies like this (and in society as a whole). They always try to dismiss it or minimize it *sigh*. Anyway, I know this is an old post, but I enjoyed reading your review!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Thanks Antoinette!