'50/50': Finally, a Film That Does Cancer Right

The new Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie is a smart, funny, sad, and true depiction of the disease

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Summit Entertainment

Has there been a harder sell at the box office this year than 50/50, the "cancer comedy" starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen that opens in theaters today?

"Cancer comedy" doesn't come close to capturing the nuance offered by 50/50, but it's catchy, and the reaction has been intense. A cursory glance at 50/50's IMDB message board reveals a number of enraged recent posts with headers like "What's next? AIDS and comedy?" and "This movie is a slap in the face to anyone who ever had cancer." This reaction can be blamed, in part, on the movie's misguided marketing campaign, which repeatedly trumpets that 50/50 comes "from the guys who brought you Superbad." But most of it can be attributed to the fact that cancer is an enormously raw, painful subject for the millions of Americans who've watched their loved ones die from it.

If you're one of those people—and if you aren't one, you know one—here's some reassurance: 50/50 is not Superbad, and it doesn't try to be. This is a drama, though it's often uproariously funny. It's also by turns smart, brave, poignant, and occasionally even tragic. What 50/50 doesn't do is trivialize cancer, or shy away—even for a moment—from the fact that its main character is dealing with a serious, potentially fatal disease. It's one of the best movies of the year, and also one of the most important.

I'd argue that the people who are turned off by the film's marketing campaign are exactly the people who would benefit most from seeing it. Full disclosure: In 2003, my older brother was diagnosed with a malignant bone cancer. Despite two years of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, the cancer proved too aggressive, and he passed away after the disease spread to his lungs in February of 2005.

I'm explaining this for people who, like me, generally approach movies about cancer the way most people approach bear traps. I could never bear the idea of sitting in a movie theater watching someone pretend to suffer for two hours, after I'd watched my brother actually suffer for two years. I was particularly troubled by movies like A Walk to Remember or Love Story, which use cancer diagnosis as a second-act plot twist.

50/50 is something of a rarity: a "cancer movie" where the main character is actually the one who has cancer. There's a good reason for that. Screenwriter Will Reiser—a real-life friend of costar Seth Rogen—heavily based his script (originally titled I'm With Cancer) on his own battle with cancer. 50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a young radio-station employee in Seattle. He has a crude best friend (Seth Rogen, essentially playing Seth Rogen), an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and a steady girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard).

But crucially—and this is where most cancer movies go wrong—none of those things goes away after Adam is diagnosed with cancer. His best friend is still crude. His mother is even more overbearing. And his relationship runs into problems that have nothing to do with his illness. Cancer doesn't make the rest of Adam's life go away. It just makes it that much harder to deal with.

The film is refreshingly realistic in its depiction of cancer treatment. As a response to Love Story, Roger Ebert coined the phrase "Ali MacGraw's disease": a "movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches." Adam is not fortunate enough to contract "Ali McGraw's disease" along with his neurofibroma-sarcoma-schwannoma. The scene in which Adam shaves his head, which has featured heavily in 50/50's promotional materials, is played successfully for comedy. But the film doesn't refrain from showing Adam's constant sense of lethargy, or his night vomiting, or how his cancer makes everything, including sex, almost totally unenjoyable.

50/50 is also very specifically grounded in what it's like to have cancer now. When the doctor's wordy, rapid-fire diagnosis confuses Adam, he just goes home and looks up "schwanomma" on WebMD. When he tells Kyle he has cancer, Kyle's mind immediately jumps to the celebrities who've survived it (including Lance Armstrong and "Dexter"). His well-meaning friends and mother foist stupid, new-age cures on Adam, and he's just desperate enough to try them. 50/50 is smart enough to recognize that the cancer experience is both universally relatable and incredibly specific, and it nails both sides of the equation.

But the thing that most sets 50/50 apart from other, similar films is its recognition that it's not just the chemotherapy that wears Adam down; it's the way people treat him. His best friend refuses to acknowledge the seriousness of his problem. His girlfriend cries about how hard Adam's disease is for her to deal with. Adam's passive frustration turns to rage at his life being used as a "cocktail-party inspiring anecdote," and eventually (and most heartbreakingly) to numb acceptance, when he confides to his therapist, "I'm starting to realize that I'm probably going to die." There's no melodrama, no syrupy string music. Just a young man who's realized that despite his best efforts, his body has inexplicably turned against him, and that there's a serious chance his cancer will kill him.

50/50 isn't a perfect movie. A subplot involving Bryce Dallas Howard is a missed opportunity to explore the self-destructive ways that some people react when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness. And a romantic subplot, featuring Anna Kendrick as Adam's (very) inexperienced therapist, relies on Hollywood cliches, which is jarring for a movie that covers so much unexplored cinematic territory.

But 50/50's success isn't in the broad strokes of its story. It's in its raw details. This is the rare comedy that's moving, the rare drama that's funny, and the rare movie that shouldn't be missed by anyone.