The Moviegoer: 50/50 (Levine, 2011)

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Admittedly, I had high expectations for the cancer-battle dramedy, 50/50. The human capacity for the comedic in the face of a death-ridden existence is one of the most intriguing indicators of the possibility to overcome death; as Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger has remarked, maybe the child’s enjoyment of peek-a-boo signifies something radically transcendent. But while the premise of 27 year old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) contracting cancer and then teaming up with his buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen) in order to cope had potential, the film left me mostly dissatisfied despite some worthwhile moments in the third act.

50/50 delivers some laughs, but too much of the film’s comedy depends on the standard hopefully-we-get-laid Rogen gimmick. I’m no Victorian, but leveraging cancer into sympathy sex doesn’t strike me as a deep reservoir to draw upon for comedic vision. Not that the film explicitly condones Rogen’s behavior: Adam even calls out his lascivious buddy for being an awful friend. But the line is fine between inviting laughter at a fool’s foolishness, and encouraging indulgence in it. Some of the film’s first half, in particular, struck me as the latter.

Despite some disappointing comedy, 50/50 does manage to balance the serious and the light-hearted. Levitt is excellent as Adam; his dead-pan veneer of calm as a cover up for insecurity and fear is convincing. I feared with and for Adam. What made me most fearful for Adam is how alone he seems after discovering that his girlfriend has been cheating on him. While the film uses the disclosure for some more Rogen laughs, it resists the urge to become an excessive pity-fest. Instead, the loss of his live-in girlfriend eventually leads Adam to a difficult realization: his loneliness is not totally the result of abandonment.

Adam is sent to a student psychologist named Katherine (Anna Kendrick) who is there to make sure he maintains a healthy sense of self-esteem. One problem: she’s not helping. Kyle’s recommendation of indulging in sexual pleasure, Katherine’s self-esteem psychology, and the empathy Adam receives from other cancer patients all ultimately fail to assuage his anxiety at the prospect of death. Perhaps one of the film’s most welcome surprises is Adam’s refusal to be told “everything will be ok.” The platitude doesn’t help the psyche because it is dishonest.

In a telling scene, when Adam is given a ride home from Katherine, he decides on a whim to clean up her messy car. The implication is that the psychologist with the answers doesn’t have it all together. Adam’s honest gesture foreshadows a later scene when Katherine unexpectedly chides Adam for his “messy” behavior—specifically the way he’s been a jerk toward his meddlesome, but genuinely concerned, mother.

Adam’s shift of perspective from total victimization to dealing honestly with his personal irresponsibility seems to effect some sense of reconciliation as he approaches surgery with his mother by his side. Particularly interesting about the moral nature of the revelation is not just the implicit undermining of much of the psychological regime, but also the notion that dark circumstances are sometimes necessary to reveal the hidden darkness in our hearts. The great Physician says that man cannot be saved unless he first perceives he is sick; perhaps it often takes serious physical sickness to recognize one’s serious spiritual nausea.

The end of the film, then, seems fitting: what now? Why do we fight to survive when our lives are threatened? What constitutes a life well lived? 50/50 raises the kind of questions that aren’t worth the risk of ignoring. It’s just too bad the film lacks even an interest in the joyous laughter invoked by the resurrection side of peek-a-boo.

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