Looking Back at 2010s Films: 50/50 (2011)

3 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…”50/50″ is one of the best “dramedies” I’ve ever seen. (I don’t care if it’s hyperbole; I just like it that much.)

Incidentally, there’s a new term I learned from a DVD extra on “Booksmart” that I hope catches on: “hilareal” (meaning “hilarious” and “real”). And that’s “50/50”: hilareal.

If there’s anything more important than a comedy that can make you laugh, it’s a comedy that can make you feel. There is a lot of funny material in “50/50,” but while I’m laughing, I’m also caring about the characters and the story; thus, when things get really serious later, I feel something. In my opinion, this is how you get audiences to care about characters: you show them as people. A little lightheartedness, a few jokes, etc. can really help an audience identify with them. And here, we have a naive, likable, aloof young man, named Adam (well-played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who’s been diagnosed with spinal cancer (with 50% chance of survival). Not very funny; in fact, the cancer itself is not meant to be laughed at (because it’s freaking CANCER!). Rather, it’s those around him (what they do, how they react) that ease the mood. There’s his best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who’s your basic comic-relief who tries to get his best friend laid, high, anything to cheer him up (and also cheer himself up as well). There’s his hovering mother (Anjelica Huston) who can be a bit much. There’s his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who has her own BS about why she doesn’t join Adam at the hospital. (It’s hardly a spoiler that this couple don’t last the entire film.) There’s a couple other cancer patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who cope with chemotherapy with marijuana-baked macaroons. There’s his therapist (Anna Kendrick), who is a great listener but a terrible psychiatrist…but potentially a good new girlfriend (because, of course). (Also, he’s her third patient.)

They’re all well-realized characters. They provide a lot of the humor, but they’re not just comic foils. The humor comes across naturally because they feel like real people. Even Seth Rogen’s over-the-top lazy-stoner comic-relief type is accepted when we realize what he himself is going through as his best friend is possibly dying of cancer and he’s trying so hard to make him feel better.

This is not a stoner comedy about cancer. Because you don’t laugh at cancer. You laugh with the characters.

The cancer aspect isn’t exploited in the slightest. Because director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser (a cancer survivor who wrote the script as semi-autobiographical–Rogen is even one of his best friends) know how serious it is. That’s where the drama comes in, as it should. And because I care about the characters, I care about what happens to Adam and how his friends and family are going to respond. To quote Roger Ebert, “A film is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it.”

There’s a moment that’s so uncomfortable I have to fast-forward through it whenever I rewatch the film because it’s so difficult to endure. It’s when Adam decides to use his declining health to pick up a woman at a bar and get her into bed. Now, that setup alone sounds awful. But what follows is actually tragic. No matter how hard he tries (and she’s DEFINITELY trying while riding him), he can’t have sex because the pain is too much. It’s a realization that he can’t live his life normally. It’s powerful and depressing at the same time…and maybe funny in a “dark comedy” sort of way.

As the film progresses, we see Adam, who’s been trying to be independent, become more emotional as his disease gets worse. In trying to beat death by simply living, he realizes just how open he needs to be to everyone who loves him and let them help him. It’s there that we as an audience realize that cancer doesn’t just affect the patient but those around him.

I love “50/50.” This is a blend of comedy and drama done exactly right. And I will say it again–it’s one of the best dramedies I’ve ever seen.

It’s…hilareal.

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