There are certain things, culturally, which we're told are simply not funny. Dead babies are one (which has, of course, spawned an entire internet subculture of people posting the most offensive jokes possible about them), and cancer is another classic. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. It's a good bet that every family has either lost someone to the disease, or has a survivor in their midst. Because the disease's impact is so widespread, and virtually everyone has some sort of personal connection to it, it is indeed hard to argue that their is anything funny about it. Still, a new film, 50/50 has managed to find the humor in just that.
Written by Will Reiser, who based the film on his own real-life experience with a rare form of spinal cancer, for which he was quoted a 50% chance of survival, 50/50 provides a surprisingly nuanced and realistic portrait of how one man copes with a cancer diagnosis. From the very start, no one can say, or do the right thing to help or calm him, even the trained professionals who are part of his treatment process. What we, as the audience, discover is there is no "right" response in this situation; everyone processes things differently and has different needs. Universal platitudes of sympathy may prove well-meaning, but inappropriate. Loved ones often prove unable to look beyond how the patient's cancer affects them, instead of the person who is actually suffering. What is often needed is a dose of normalcy in the midst of a complete life upheaval, and in the life of Adam, the film's protagonist, that normalcy comes in the form of humor.
Adam and his best friend, Kyle (played by Seth Rogen, real-life best friend of the film's writer, who encouraged him to put the story of their response to his cancer on film), react to his diagnosis by using comedy as a defense mechanism. It masks how scared they are, and gives them a way to blow off steam in what would otherwise be an intolerably stressful situation. They show that, yes, cancer can be funny, if you choose to view it that way, and the results are touching, if somewhat disarming.
Both Rogen (who, up until now has never been in a movie I wanted to see), and Joseph Gordan-Levitt delivered great performances in this film, but for me, Rogen was the real surprise. Perhaps because he had already lived out this scenario in real-life, he brought a great deal of pathos to his role as Adam's primary support system. Though he uses his friend's illness to score sympathy dates with a variety of women, and scores vast quantities of medicinal marijuana off his buddy, you can see that underneath the veneer of wise-cracks is a man who genuinely loves and cares for his best friend.
I went into the movie having read a review of the film that described it as "Beaches for dudes." Given that description, I was expecting (and secretly hoping for) a weepfest, but I must not have factored in the "for dudes" part of that description. While Beaches is a study in the strength of female friendships and how women lean on each other in difficult times, female friendships and male friendships are entirely different entities. Not to stereotype, but women talk, share, and emote together far more than men do. So while 50/50 is every bit as much about the power of male friendships, there is no sappiness in sight.