Friday end-of-life movie review: 50/50 is so-so

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on February 17, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Inspired by a true story, 50/50 deals with Adam, a 27-year-old man diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie chronicles Adam’s course of treatment and his struggle to accept his diagnosis with the help of his best friend, played by Seth Rogen, and a young therapist-in-training, played by Anna Kendrick.

First of all, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie because my expectations for it were quite low. With Seth Rogen playing a main character I was prepared for crude “bro-flick” humor, but there are several touching and heartfelt moments throughout the film and the “dude” scenes are tolerable.

My disappointment derives from my sense that this movie could be so much more than it is. I long for a deeper exploration of the emotions experienced by the dying, particularly those who are dealing with terminal illness at a young age. But repeatedly the dramatic moments in the script fall short of reality, sacrificed for the sake of humor.

The movie presents Adam’s emotional struggles through the external perspectives of his best friend and his therapist, which leaves his portrayal superficial and flat. But I know from my experience with cancer patients that the internal battle of fear, doubt, anger and betrayal taking place within Adam would have been far more compelling and real, though less knee-slapping funny.

I also know that there is abundant humor in the real end-of-life stories of patients - humor that is poignant and heartrending but still generates deep and meaningful laughter. That genuine heart-based humor would be a welcome replacement in this movie for ball-shaving jokes.

With that being said, however, there is some evidence of transformation in this movie. Near the end Adam realizes that his mother is suffering because he won’t talk to her about his feelings and also discovers that his best friend cares about him more than he reveals. This eventually leads to some tender moments when he connects more deeply with these two people.

The most realistic scene of the movie occurs when Adam finally expresses his anger, screaming and shouting in agony as he pounds on the steering wheel of his friend’s car. That moment of release ultimately provides the audience with an outlet, as well, for the tension that has been mounting throughout the humorous scenes of the film.

All in all, 50/50 is entertaining and pleasant enough to be worthy of a viewing. But as a movie dealing with end-of-life issues, it is mostly fluff with just a small dose of pain mixed in. The point this movie sadly misses is that it is the pain that makes the story worth telling in the first place. In this movie the unmentioned suffering should drive the plot, just as in real life suffering drives transformation and provides the meaning that infuses everything.

Categories: Movie Review, End-of-Life, Illness & Healing

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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