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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

On DVD: Film has less than ’50/50′ chance of success

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

While the movie “50/50,” which came out on DVD on Jan. 24, has garnered good reviews and was recently nominated for two Golden Globes, the purpose behind the film still seems vague. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, screenwriter Will Reiser based it loosely on his own life. It focuses on Adam (Gordon-Levitt), who at age 27 discovers he has cancer in his spine, leaving him with a 50 percent chance of survival; Rogen stars as his wisecracking best friend. Recently been released on DVD, the movie has made nearly $40 million to date, doing well considering its $eight million budget.

Although labeled a “comedic drama,” the previews for this film are somewhat misleading. They incorporate every funny scene in the movie—including every quirky comment Rogen makes—thus creating an illusion that this film has found a new, noteworthy way of handling cancer by incorporating humor all the time.

In fact, the actual film is only partially comedic, with the rest of the scenes focusing on the emotions underlying Adam’s so-called “nervous breakdown.”

It is in these serious scenes where the movie falls flat. While Rogen actually deserves a lot of credit here for making his portion of the movie very funny, the more depressing scenes lack this energy. Though the audience understands that Adam has cancer, we are not really let into his pain and suffering.

There is one scene in particular where we are really supposed to understand Adam’s internal feelings. It involves Adam screaming, crying and banging on the steering wheel of his best friend’s car. While it is possible to buy that scene, the rest of the movie just shows him looking upset, staring vacantly out of windows and frowning.

In this way, “50/50” does not accurately portray the life of a cancer patient. Adam endures his fair share of hardships. His girlfriend (Bryce Dallas-Howard), rather than standing by him and picking him up from chemo, chooses instead to cheat on him. His mother (Anjelica Huston) is extremely hysterical and hard to control. One of his close friends (Matt Frewer) in therapy dies from cancer. Yet, his true pain is never felt; the emptiness and loneliness that he should be feeling is not expressed convincingly to the audience. Though the movie does show some of the horrors of cancer, such as Adam receiving chemotherapy, it is always shallow. While the comedy in the movie is well done and entertains, “50/50” is still not the real-life, believable drama it should be.

The movie’s other faults lie in other unbelievable occurrences. Adam goes to therapy to deal with his illness and is under the guidance of a very young therapist named Katherine (Anna Kendrick). Katherine is very unprofessional, starting with the fact that she is only 24 and Adam is one of her first patients. She does not keep professional boundaries between herself and Adam, and the end of the film shows them forming a relationship with each other. This is just another spot where “50/50” strayed from reality: In a professional world, Katherine would lose her job, not be part of Adam’s happy ending.

Seth Rogen, who plays Adam’s sidekick Kyle, is this film’s savior. Juvenile and supportive, he conveys a character that is both stable and hilarious. His support of Adam and the way Rogen conveys their friendship through body language is very real; their friendship is the one part of the movie audiences fully, completely believe. Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt seems less important—his character almost fades into the background. Indeed, it is as though Gordon-Levitt is playing the same character over and over again. With cancer, without cancer, with a girlfriend, without a girlfriend (such as in “500 Days of Summer”), he is the same morose, sensitive man who isn’t terribly interesting to watch onscreen.

So why did “50/50” get such good reviews? It seems as though reviewers were blinded by Seth Rogen. “Philadelphia Weekly” gave “50/50” a B-plus review, raving that it was “hysterically funny.” Yet, the only nod it gives to Gordon-Levitt is in passing, while every paragraph of the review pays homage to Rogen. Rogen displays a “fundamental, unexpected decency, which can often only be expressed through shoulder-punching obscenities” and makes this movie about cancer the film to watch. Yet, while Rogen is phenomenal, the quality of the movie should not be solely based on the performance of one character. Why is it acceptable that Rogen is responsible for salvaging the entire film?

While “50/50” is entertaining and definitely a good enough movie to watch if you are slightly bored and it pops up on your Netflix queue, it is not something to encourage the entire family to watch. The movie seems not really to go anywhere. Adam contracts cancer then recovers, but since the audience hardly feels his pain, it does not seem to matter all that much.