Some of my best friends are malignant

Overrated cancer “comedy” 50/50 is neither particularly touching nor funny

by Frances Marion Platt
October 06, 2011 12:00 PM | 0 0 comments | 828 828 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Seth Rogen star in 50/50
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, left, and Seth Rogen star in 50/50
Some weeks, it’s a challenge to find a movie that you really want to see – especially if you fall somewhere outside Hollywood’s core demographic of males in their late teens and early-to-mid-20s. The movies that apparently appeal most to that target group tend to be the ones that appeal to me least. How do I know this, if I avoid going to the movies to see them? Simple: My gym has a Cardio Theatre, where a couple of times a week I get to see about 25 minutes of some random flick on DVD while I warm up on the treadmill. Once in a while I get introduced that way to something intriguing enough to want to rent, but more often it’s an education in how many truly awful, even repellent movies are out there in the marketplace nowadays.

Thus it was that I was introduced to the currently popular genre of comedies about male bonding among guys whose behavior is remarkably immature even for the target age range. Sometimes known as bromances, these movies usually involve a high quotient of potty humor. Now, I knew plenty of guys like these characters in real life, back in my college days: stoners who regarded their flatulence as the height of wit and dismissed anyone who disagreed as “uptight.” These were the guys who put their stereo speakers in their dorm room windows facing outward and turned the music up full-blast at all hours; if you asked them politely to turn it down so you could sleep or study, they would do so for about 30 seconds and then turn it up even louder as you walked away, laughing uproariously at what bold rebels they were.

As you can see, I don’t remember these guys very kindly, and I have no use for them in my present life. So it was that I quickly learned in the Cardio Theatre that any movie with Seth Rogen in it was a movie that I didn’t need to pay money to see. I even watched part of a movie he was in that involved a friend having cancer, titled Funny People – although I didn’t realize at the time that the Adam Sandler character was supposed to have cancer, since all I saw was the last 25 minutes, which just seemed to be about some obnoxious dudes insulting one another and then making up for a heartwarming finale.

Despite all these red flags, I foolishly allowed my hopes to be raised that 50/50 would somehow be different. I heard a piece about it on NPR that made it sound like a more thoughtful and grownup, maybe even poignant film about what happens when a man in his 20s gets cancer, with the grimness slightly leavened by humor. In a rather transparent bid to market the film to the literati, the two male leads are even supposed to work for an NPR affiliate station (although that’s quite a stretch of the imagination with the Rogen character). I figured, “If I’m ever going to spend my hard-earned cash to see a Seth Rogen movie, I guess this is it.” I should have trusted my original instincts. Directed by Jonathan Levine, 50/50 is, with the exception of a few moments spotlighting secondary or tertiary characters, an unpleasant film about unpleasant people, punctuated by way too much of Rogen mugging, flailing and stomping about, trying desperately to be funny and failing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the lead character, Adam, who is diagnosed with a malignant tumor described by a paper-thin caricature of a cold, insensitive doctor as “that cephalopodlike object spreading down your spine” in an MRI photo. Adam’s response is to lapse into deep denial and stay there through at least three-quarters of the movie, most of his lines consisting of “I’m fine” and “I’ll be fine.” Then he gets irritated with the (admittedly often clumsy) efforts of his friends, family and psychotherapist to help him confront his feelings about what is happening to him. Before the third act, when he finally starts to break down, his only likable moments are when he is making an effort to be nice to his self-absorbed artist-wannabe girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard).

Rogen’s character, Kyle, openly detests anyone his best friend dates, critiquing Adam’s sex life in the crudest of terminology, and is aggressively self-righteous when he turns out to be right that Rachael has wearied of Adam’s indisposition and is cheating on him. Presumably, the viewer is meant to read this as a heartwarming demonstration of loyal friendship. In fact, the one moment in the movie that actually made the corners of my mouth twitch into a near-laugh was perhaps an unintentional joke: when the perpetually slovenly Kyle angrily characterizes Rachael’s new flame as a “dirty hippie.” The mostly catatonic Adam then wakes up just enough to engage in a bit of cathartic adolescent highjinks with Kyle, trashing a painting that Rachael painted especially for Adam and left behind when she moved out. Ho-hum.

Most of the supporting cast makes a valiant effort with this uninspiring vehicle full of thinly written characters. Matt Frewer, best-known as Max Headroom, shines in the tiny role of Mitch, a happily married fellow patient in Adam’s support group. The redoubtable Anjelica Huston manages to wring some class, dignity and humor out of a horrible stereotype: the smothering drama-queen mother (whose husband also happens to have Alzheimer’s). One of the few truly touching scenes in the film is the moment when Adam belatedly finds out that his Mom is also in a support group, and it suddenly occurs to him that he’s not the only one suffering (duh).

Anna Kendrick, who tries hard to give some dimension to her well-meaning but inexperienced 24-year-old psychotherapist assigned to counsel cancer patients, gets her best lines in the next scene, when she gets to tell her hitherto-recalcitrant patient, “So she’s got this husband who can’t talk to her and this son who won’t. Doesn’t that make you kind of a dick?” Not exactly the height of professional demeanor, but by now one can’t help feeling that the poor guy with cancer really does need a smack upside the head.

50/50 might’ve turned out a better movie with a more sophisticated director and without the leaden weight of Rogen’s coarse, charmless unfunniness dragging behind it. But since it was executive produced and written by bromance king Will Reiser based on his own experience with cancer, in which Rogen himself was the real-life buddy who helped jolly him through, such an outcome was destined never to be. Those who inexplicably find this sort of character a knee-slapper may flock to this movie and crown it box-office king of the week, but I’ve learned my lesson. Note to self: Never, ever spend money on a movie featuring Seth Rogen again – no matter what some reviewer says about it on Weekend Edition.

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