Monday, 4 February 2013

Ask not for whom the bell tolls...


As the opening music of the movie 50/50 introduces us to Adam we see him running the streets of his city. Safety conscious, he jogs on the spot, waiting at an empty crossing, refusing to follow a fellow runner who jogs across the road without stopping. He waits diligently for the green hand to show and only then crosses the empty junction.

In a wry exchange with his counsellor after his diagnosis of cancer Adam explains that he doesn’t drive, because it is the third leading cause of death in America. Then comments ironically, ‘behind cancer though’.

For this is a film that shows us we cannot control our lives, however hard we try. If we do all the right things, and follow the rules to the letter, we can still be struck down out of nowhere. Death, in this case cancer, is random; it can strike anyone, anywhere.

Like Adam, we too can be shocked out of our comfortable, diligent life by, well, by anything at all. For Adam it is schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma, a malignant spinal tumour with a 50% survival rate that comes out of nowhere without cause or reason. And watching Adam face this threat tells us something about how we all do so, for ourselves and for others.

What do you say to someone who has cancer? What can Adam’s friends say, or his therapist, or his mother? In their own ways, they try to help. In their own ways they inevitably fail, sometimes humorously, often painfully.

Like us, Adam is not surrounded by trained, flawless professionals, by deep philosophers and expert theologians. His friends are amateurs and cowards, foolish and immature, flawed and struggling with their own fears, their own issues, their mortality.

Adam's therapist is a trainee, struggling to draw comfort from her case studies and textbooks to give to Adam. His mother annoys him, worrying incessantly; his best friend is a joker man-child, obsessed with sex.

In fundamental ways, they can’t help him. But they try. And, for me, the central lesson of the film is that sometimes, that’s enough. Just to try, to be there, with their flaws, with their fears, it’s not perfect, but it’s something.

50/50 attempts to find humour in the ridiculousness of our own flawed humanity, and, in my opinion, it succeeds, treading that fine line between dark humour, and its serious subject.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as Adam, portraying him as a man struggling to express his frustration, his anger at the unfairness of his illness. A scene when his normal reserved calm finally breaks and he lets his emotions out in a deep and painful scream is heart-wrenching in its truthfulness.

Adam's friend Kyle is played by Seth Rogen, and played well as the straight-talking dope-head that he always plays. I’m not usually a fan of Rogen, in most films he’s just too much, but here he is a good foil for Adam.

The film has its flaws, perhaps the ending is a little pat, and I think the crudity that pops up in places (whenever Seth Rogen is on screen usually) could put some people off. But on the whole, I think this is a very impressive take on a difficult subject.

The central flaw of the film though is that it fails to explore the most important question it raises. What does it all mean? At one point Adam comes face-to-face with the knowledge of his own death, and realises that his life is meaningless, that if there is nothing after death then what is the point of life? It is a moment of existential dread, a moment that shows the emptiness of a life without meaning, just existence for it's own sake.

The film skips over this subject though, and quickly we are back to Kyle’s own answer to this question, sex. For Adam sex is not the panacea that Kyle treats it as, but what is his comfort, what is his reason for living?

There is no sense that Adam even contemplates this question, or that his brush with death has led to any re-evaluation of the most fundamental question of life. Maybe this isn’t its focus, but I think it would be a more impressive film if it was.

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