50/50 Film Review: Cancer in the Movies

Going to a cancer movie when you have cancer is a strange experience.

I went to the movies the first time in a long time the other night with a friend. Not having a TV, I never know what is out, so I had to watch some trailers on imdb.com. I was a little wary of seeing a “cancer” movie, since most of them are about the process of dying and how much it sucks for all the people they are leaving behind. Like the only person who can make peace with death is the one who is dying. I am definitely not there. I am more a “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” kind of person.

Also, you may have noted in my previous blog that the last time I was at the movie theater, I ended up sobbing in the parking lot after discovering that my cancer had spread. If this movie did end up being a tearjerker, I might get a reputation as crazy-weeping lady. Or worse, end up on YouTube.

But I was intrigued by the cast combo of the kid from “Third Rock” (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the guy from “Knocked Up” (Seth Rogen). Also, unlike most cancer movies (this seems like an actual genre of film now—a frightening media trend indicative of just how universal this disease is), it is from the perspective of the person who has cancer.

This ended up being a truly worthwhile film, with an excellent balance of goofy and heartbreak. It is one of the paradoxes of disease: you have to have a sense of humor to get through it and yet you want people to recognize that it is both shitty and significant, without pitying you.

The audience is given as close a perspective of the protagonist, Adam, as possible without narrative voice-over. Adam himself is a kind of everyman; simultaneously likeable and disappointing (you want to push him to do better). The way that he experiences cancer is pretty accurate in terms of emotions and events. The only aspect of his treatment that I did not fully identify with was his reaction to drugs: morphine gave me a headache and thyroid cancer does not merit prescription marijuana.

Of course there are subplots intertwined with his cancer diagnosis: two romantic entanglements and a complicated family dynamic. The romances led to many comic moments and the family relationships were both heartbreaking and heartwarming. The film highlighted the silver lining of a new perspective gained. Perhaps this is not so with everyone, but family has become a much bigger priority in my life since my diagnosis. My feelings have not changed, but my willingness to act on them has.

Adam’s relationship with his best friend is also quite endearing. It illustrates the difficult balance friends must maintain between easing fears (jokes) and showing care. Sometimes you want to smack Rogen’s character, but even before his most poignant scenes you understand that his inappropriateness is attempted compensation for not having a clue how to deal with this situation.

Once the film ended my friend turned to me, tears in eyes, and hugged me, saying “I have been such a crappy friend.” I was rather surprised (and more than a little embarrassed since the people squeezing past us were staring) that she felt this way. There weren’t any characters in the movie that I would characterize as “exemplary” in their encounters with cancer, although Anna Kendrick’s character comes close. Maybe my friend saw a little of herself in the Seth Rogen character because she has not really dealt with the whole cancer thing directly (ie. talking about it). But she has been a friend throughout. Exactly as she was before. And as the movie points out, when your life is thrown into a funk, you crave normalcy. The only bad friends are the ones who abandon you (there are examples of this too).

I also did not escape this film with dry eyes. There are plenty of sad moments, and I think my original suspicions were right in that I felt a lot of the scenes more intensely than I would have had I not gone through it myself. The pre-surgery scenes are especially difficult. However, this is not one of those movies that psychologically beat the crap out of you (what I like to refer to as “Lonesome Dove Literature”). It has an uplifting, move-on-with-life ending without getting overly sappy or preachy. It illustrates that ultimately, there are no capital-A Answers, no certainties in this life. Each of us is left wondering and hoping, “What next?”

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