From Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email her at [email protected]
Is it the lousy economy that makes us worry about how little time we have left? Or is it the weather that never seems healthy? Or is it that the slacker generation that seemed to roll along, happily smoking pot and subsisting on marginal jobs, has suddenly turned 40?
Whatever the case, this summer has brought forth two important films that meditate on illness and death. With the recently released 50/50 , we have a film about dying to add to last month’s Contagion.
Although both films deal with disease and death, the two are radically different. 50/50 is a genuine comedy. By that I mean that the film is more than just a collection of yuks hanging on a flimsy plot. It probably fits into the category of “bromance” — the kind of movie where guys get wasted as they talk about trapping women into sex some day, despite their own lack of charm, money or good looks. (Many of the actors in these film are hairy and pudgy and proud of it).
But 50/50 has more to it than that, possibly because it is based on the experience of its writer. Several years ago Will Reiser actually got the dread news that he had the Big C: CANCER. Cancer scares everyone.
50/50 poses the question of mortality in a personal way that Contagion‘s emphasis on public health can’t quite get to. Its focuses on a single patient, Adam Schwartz, played endearingly by the fresh-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Because he is a nice young man and looks healthy, the diagnosis Adam receives is all the more devastating. He has had no warning, and neither have his friends.
These include his girlfriend, his mother, and — most importantly — his horny best friend, Kyle, played by Seth Rogan. Their reactions, and especially Kyle’s lewd commentary, provide comic relief both for the audience and for Adam. The jokes are expectably gross, but Kyle’s heart is in the right place, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the movie has a heart, and a mind as well.
The meditation on death at the center of this film has to be conveyed by Gordon-Levitt, and he manages it with the kind of actorly patience that builds sympathy without grabbing for it. Adam suffers the ministrations of his best friend, his mother, and his counselor without comment, but with a steady acceptance that shows his growing understanding of the plight he is in.
The consolations offered by contemporary psychology are shown as simple-minded, though the naïve psychologist-in-training who offers them is engagingly acted by Anna Kendrick. But although Adam allows himself one bout of anger, there are no extended histrionics — no storming heaven for answers.
Finally, 50/50 unveils the simple sweetness of an individual who comes to accept the death part of his life as steadily as he does his daily living. By the conclusion of this touching film, there is a sense that Adam has come through with his spirit as well as his body restored.*
Well, perhaps I got carried away. But I was relieved to find that 50/50 was a “serious” film, even though I laughed a lot in it. It is not serious the way that Contagion is, making an important survey of our world and suggesting lessons to be learned from disease. It is serious in its portrayal of a single individual who encounters a scary illness and maintains his dignity, his friendships, and his sense of humor through it all.
There are some rental movies that depict the anxiety and pain of death with an evocation of serenity like the one that ends 50/50. If you’re interested, you could start with Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal (1957, and try to ignore the dated sound track). And then there’s Terms of Endearment (1983), Philadelphia (1993) and Wit (an HBO film, 2001). But don’t view these all at once. That would be far too scary.
*I wrote this before Steve Jobs’ death and the broadcast of his remarkable 2005 commencement address at Stanford: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”