A little less than a decade ago, Seth Rogan’s good friend, Will Reiser, was diagnosed with cancer when they were both in their early 20s. Rogan helped Reiser cope with his diagnosis. Reiser eventually recovered. During this time, Rogan told Reiser he ought to write a screenplay about his experience. 50/50 is that story.
50/50 stars the always good Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam Learner (note the name: “man who is learning”), a twenty-seven year old man diagnosed with a rarer form of cancer in his spinal column. He is given a fifty percent chance of survival, ergo, the film’s title, and the story is about how he and his friends and family learn to deal with this development. Everyone in this film is excellent. Bryce Dallas Howard gives a very sympathetic portrayal as Adam’s utterly unlikeable girlfriend. Anna Kendrick is great as Adam’s somewhat inappropriate therapist. The fine Anjelica Huston is compassionately clingy as Adam’s mother. Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall are endearing and sad as two of Adam’s fellow chemotherapy patients.
Seth Rogan is his usual profanity-laden, bombastic, pot-smoking self, but he is also excellent as Adam’s best friend, Kyle. As I mentioned before, this film’s screenplay is based on the actual experience of writer Reiser and Rogan. Rogan is playing himself here, and I think his performance sheds light on the rest of his films.
Kyle is abrasive, seemingly selfish, and preoccupied with getting Adam to use his illness to bed women and score prescription drugs. Underneath these self-destructive suggestions though is a deep concern for Adam. Kyle really wants Adam to relax as much as he can and enjoy life in the midst of his illness. This is a very Ecclesiastical take on life – life is messed up, but there is also some beauty in it. I agree with that outlook, even as I disagree with the means of enjoyment Kyle recommends. Perhaps this relishing of the good in life is the ethos buried underneath Seth Rogan’s profane films. Perhaps his experience of helping his friend deal with cancer in his early twenties still informs his movie choices today. Seth Rogan wants his audience to enjoy life, though hopefully they can do that without resorting to illicit substances.
I’m glad that Adam has Kyle, because he really doesn’t have much of anyone else. This is the most heartbreaking thing about 50/50 for me. Adam seems very alone. If I was in his same situation, I think I have more friends and family members who would be willing to support me throughout my illness.
Adam’s lack of community is partly his own fault. He pushes his parents away and would push Kyle away if Kyle had allowed him to. Adam’s journey is as much about learning how to allow his friends and family to help him as it is about his learning to deal with his illness personally. In fact, the two are one and the same. The only way he is capable of dealing with his illness is if he allows others to help him, just as he is reliant on others to drive him around because he doesn’t know how to drive a car. In fact, in Adam’s moment of greatest selfishness and, in good story form, his moment of self discovery, he takes the keys from his friend finally denying even that help.
Cancer is terrible. There are no words I can use to give enough weight to that fact. I think of the too many people I have lost in my life to one form of cancer or another. These are the names I hold in my hand when I shake my fist at the heavens. Their names are the questions that fuel my doubts of God’s goodness and activity in the world.
When I think of the ones I’ve lost though, I also think of the ones who stood resolutely beside them through their illness to and beyond the point of death. I am inspired to hope by the faithful love I have so often seen demonstrated by the family and friends of those afflicted with cancer. Should the day ever come when I find myself similarly afflicted, I pray I learn from Adam’s example and from the examples of the saints now surrounding me, and allow myself to be loved by those who love me. Death will eventually visit us all in some form or another, but we each don’t have to welcome it alone.