Arts & Entertainment

Funny against all odds

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Imagine how difficult it must be to hear your doctor say you have cancer. Now imagine how you’d feel if you asked the perfunctory question, “I’ll be okay though … right?” only to get an evasive mumble in return. That’s the story of Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old public radio writer whose recurring back pain turns out to be a spinal tumor that now leaves him with a 50 per cent chance of surviving.  

50/50 is loosely based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with spinal cancer in his twenties, and actor Seth Rogen, Reiser’s real-life friend throughout the ordeal. Adam reacts to the diagnosis with incredulity at first, but the medical jargon he frantically gathers on WebMD reinforces that he’s in rough shape. Rogen, playing Adam’s best friend Kyle, shares screen time with other supporting actors, making it clear that this is not another throwaway stoner comedy. The comedy/drama premise may sound a lot like 2009’s Funny People—another Rogen film focusing on terminal illness—but the similarities end there. 

The film touches on the physical aspects of the disease—the chemotherapy, the puking, and the hair loss—but this is primarily a movie about people. Adam’s support system tries to provide encouragement, but they quickly show that they’re just as unprepared to face cancer as he is. Kyle uses humour to put Adam at ease; he even uses cancer as the ultimate pickup line, but the blatant selfishness of it riddles him with guilt. 

Meanwhile, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a 24-year-old post-grad student, has been assigned by the local hospital to counsel Adam as if he were her latest class project. She can’t convey a comfort level with his condition, so she relies on a mixture of jittery bedside manner, recitations from her handbook, and some carefully placed medical buzzwords.  Even Adam’s girlfriend absent-mindedly buys him an old, emaciated greyhound as a morale booster, not realizing that caring for the dog is a needless burden for which he is now responsible. Everybody tries to show Adam that they care, but nobody wants to be the one to openly admit how terrified and self-conscious his disease is making them. After all, it’s not about them; it’s Adam’s life that’s at stake, and to show any signs of wavering dedication to him would be a serious faux pas. 

Cancer isn’t the easiest subject to film: nobody likes watching a depressing story, and cancer jokes can inevitably place studios in some pretty dangerous territory. Fortunately, director Jonathan Levine navigates the story carefully and is able to make light of cancer more than he makes fun of it. Walking on eggshells is a major theme. Everybody has a moment where bailing on Adam seems like the only way to keep their sanity, and not everyone is dedicated enough to stand by him until the end.  

We have all encountered the devastation that illness causes, and it’s very possible that the fear of just being near sick people is something not everyone can overcome. This movie will make you cringe when characters say the wrong thing, applaud when they learn how to cope, and make you ask yourself whether you’d feel just as hopeless as they did. Not many films can leave such an impression, but 50/50 does it beautifully. 

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