erik lundegaard

50/50
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50/50 (2011)

WARNING: EVEN ODDS FOR SPOILERS

“50/50” is being promoted as a true-life comedy about cancer.

So far so good.

Will Reiser, a writer for “Da Ali G Show,” and a friend of actor Seth Rogen, contracted a rare form of cancer in his twenties, and in the aftermath realized his experience wasn’t one he’d seen depicted in the usual weepy Hollywood movies about cancer. He survived, for one. He never lost his sense of humor, for another. He never stopped trying to pick up girls, for a third. So why not make a movie out of that?

So far so good.

In the final version, however, his true-life account became populated with unreal people whose sole purpose is to make our sympathetic hero even more sympathetic. The decks are stacked and the story dumbed down and a bit of misogyny tossed in for good measure.

Bummer.

Here’s an example. Reiser’s surrogate, symbolically name Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a writer for Seattle Public Radio (SPR), who learns he has cancer in the following fashion: His doctor (Andrew Arlie) completely ignores Adam sitting in front of him and explains the situation into his tape recorder. Only when Adam begs his pardon and asks what’s going on does the doctor, rolling his eyes, deign to tell the patient what’s going on with the patient’s life. Now I’ve had some bad doctors in my day but never one this bad. The guy’s so uncaring he could be running for president on the GOP ticket.

Adam’s subsequent therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) is the opposite: overly caring. She’s 24 years old, working on her dissertation, unprofessional. Adam is only the third patient of her career, yet he first encounters her while she’s eating lunch in her office, completely oblivious to the fact that she has an appointment with him, the third patient of her career. (They meet cute.) During sessions, she touches him on the arm repeatedly. After sessions, she gives him her cellphone number, then a car ride home, then, eventually, herself. “I wish you were my girlfriend,” he says near the end of the picture, which is what she wishes, and what we wish, and what she becomes. How nice when people get their wishes!

This turn of events, such as it is, is necessary because Adam’s initial girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the worst girlfriend in the world. She’s a painter of Pollock-y abstractionist work and is often gone at art gallery openings. When she’s home their sex is intermittent and conventional. After he contracts cancer, she refuses to go into the hospital with him (all the negative energy, she says), and after one such treatment, and after he’s bragged about her to fellow cancer patients Mitch and Alan (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall—the best part of the movie), she’s hours late picking him up. We see him waiting by the curb in the dark. Finally, Adam’s mouthy best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), sees her at an art gallery with a pretentious artist out of central casting, whom she kisses. This is while Adam is home alone, sick and dying, on the couch.

Earlier this year, in Ron Howard’s “The Dilemma,” it takes an entire movie for a dude to tell his best friend that his girl is cheating on him. It takes Kyle about five seconds. (More power to him.) “I hate you,” he tells her in the big confrontation scene, “I’ve always hated you.” When she complains about how difficult it’s been, and why is it her responsibility anyway to care for Adam, Kyle lets loose a string of unpunctuated phrases that is better than any invective he could concoct: “Because you’re his girlfriend he’s got cancer you cheated on him you fucking lunatic!”

That’s pretty funny, actually. It’s also amusing, intentionally or not, that Rachael is played by the daughter of the director of “The Dilemma.” Unfortunately, we’re not done with Rachael yet.

For some reason, the filmmakers felt Rachael needed to return to get her things. For some reason, they needed to show us that she’s not only subjectively untalented but objectively untalented. So she returns, needy and vulnerable, and wishing to start up again with Adam, because she finally had her big art opening and no one bought anything. No one liked her stuff. But Adam still likes her, doesn’t he? Huh? In this manner, after all she’d done, she tries to insinuate herself back into his life. Which allows Adam to say, “Get the fuck off my porch.” Then he and Kyle, with Roy Orbison’s “Cryin’” playing on the soundtrack, attack her remaining painting with eggs, knives and fire.

Question: Was screenwriter Will Reiser’s real girlfriend during this period so awful? Or was Rachael created to add drama and sympathy to an already dramatic and sympathetic situation?

And couldn’t they have played the whole thing like “Curb Your Enthusiasm”? Made the protagonist “Will Reiser” who works on “’Da Ali G Show’” and contracts cancer, and various things happen to him and his friends, such as “Seth Rogen”? Made it funny and true rather than semi-funny and mostly false?

Even changing locales messes things up. Seattle ain’t LA, particularly when it’s Vancouver, B.C., and particularly when you’re talking about picking up pretty girls in bars. Is the dynamic in LA bars like the dynamic in any other bars around the world? I assume not. I assume pretty girls in LA bars want to be part of the entertainment industry; so if you’re a semi-successful guy in the entertainment industry, if you’re, say, a writer on “Da Ali G Show,” you’ve got an “in” with pretty girls that no other guy in no other bar has. One even wonders if this doesn’t account for the misogyny in many Hollywood projects. Pretty girls in most cities tend to ignore guys like us. Pretty girls in LA tend to use—or be used by—guys like us.

“50/50” gave me a couple of laugh-out loud moments along with a couple of existentially poignant moments. I loved Mitch and Alan around the chemotherapy IVs, and Angelica Huston as Adam’s needy, slightly off mother. But for a movie that was created because its story was unique, “50/50” is surprisingly formulaic.

—October 3, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard