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Review: 50/50 (2011)

50/50 (2011)

Directed by: Jonathan Levine

Premise: A young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers he has a rare kind of cancer.

What Works: Cancer is one of the most obnoxious Hollywood plot devices because filmmakers often use the disease as a cheap hook to gain audience sympathy or resolve a relationship by killing off a character and actors in these films are often encouraged to indulge in a lot of ostentatious sentimentality. That tendency by Hollywood filmmakers to exploit cancer makes 50/50 all the more exceptional. Rather than a melodrama, this film exists somewhere between a dark comedy and a coming of age piece as 50/50 finds humor in the patient’s experience after his diagnosis and through his treatment. There is a lot of humor in 50/50 but it is never done as a way that cheapens the severity of the illness or trivializes the character’s struggle with it. In fact, a lot of the humor actually comes at the expense of the people in the patient’s life who exploit him, whether they intend to or not, such as coworkers who are suddenly and disingenuously nice, the counselor who uses their interaction as part of her dissertation, or the best friend who uses the patient’s illness to make romantic connections. Humor often has an antisocial undercurrent to it and the humor of 50/50 is razor sharp, so it is no surprise that many of the supporting characters occasionally get cut by it. But that sharpness cuts another way too, as the film slices through characteristic Hollywood sentimentality. By doing that, 50/50 is able to get at the real issue facing its patient; this isn’t a film about dying, it is film about living. What bothers the main character is not that he might die but the randomness by which that death sentence is meted out and his inability to control his own life. 50/50 is ultimately about the main character acknowledging what is within in control and taking responsibility for it and that pushes this film beyond just a story about illness but about growing up.

What Doesn’t: The story strains credulity one step too far in the patient’s relationship with a counselor played by Anna Kendrick. Although the relationship is sweet and Kendrick is very good in the role, their budding romance presents all kinds of ethical problems for Kendrick’s character. The film is also at a loss with what to do with Seth Rogan as the patient’s best friend. Rogan is in his usual lovable stoner mode here but the film does not use him in anything other than that. His unrefined ways make him a foil to Joseph Gordon-Levitt but it is hard to see the role as anything more than an extended cameo.

Bottom Line: 50/50 is one of the better films released this year. Although it has flaws in its credulity, the film is a great story about facing death and in the process rediscovering an appreciation for life.

Episode: #358 (October 9, 2011)