The Future (Miranda July, 2011)
I predict that in the months following the release of 50/50, an inordinate number of young men will schedule appointments with their physicians to discuss the lingering back pain they’ve been experiencing. The vast majority won’t receive the diagnosis of cancer that Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives from his doctor. Instead, they are far more likely to get some news that, from their perspective, they may find just as harrowing: they are getting older. The baseline fear in both cases is mortality. And while Adam’s diagnosis comes as a shock to everyone around him because he is only 27, it underscores the fact that he, his friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), and his counselor Katie (Anna Kendrick) have reached the age at which mortality itself can no longer come as a surprise.
The wonder of 50/50 is that it manages to face these facts with so many laugh-out-loud moments and nothing that seems maudlin or squirm-inducing. Though the focus throughout remains on Adam as he deals not only with cancer but with a breakup and a patchy relationship with his mother, the development of the characters around him, particularly Kyle and Katie, is made just as compelling. Rogen makes no stretches as a thespian here, but he is hilarious from start to finish and seemingly minor touches, such as a book Adam finds in Kyle’s bathroom or Kyle driving Adam to the hospital, bring into clearer focus not only the nature of the friendship between the two but the struggle Kyle has undergone while attempting to maintain a sense of normalcy for his best friend.
If you recognize Anna Kendrick from Up In The Air, so too will you recognize the character she plays here. Kendrick is once again a young professional in over her head and coming off a breakup: this time, she is a therapist working in a teaching hospital while going for her doctorate. Just as Kyle’s arc tells both the story of his friendship with Adam and his personal struggle with Adam’s disease, Katie’s development reveals the professional growth that comes with real-life experience as well as the very personal realization that what she has mastered through her studies can be much more messy and potentially heartbreaking when experienced firsthand. Her attempts to fit Adam into the classic parameters of each grief stage accentuate the facts that not only is he going through those stages, no matter how hard he fights not to show it, but she has joined him.
Anjelica Huston is just as good as you’d expect as Adam’s mother, Diane. Diane is overprotective and overbearing to the point that Adam actively avoids speaking with her simply so he will not have to listen to her constantly worrying out loud. Her presence deepens the characterization of Adam when we see him realize that she has very real reasons to worry and that he doesn’t really have a reason to treat her as he does.
That Huston makes Diane a character rather than a caricature is important, because there is an important lesson to be learned from her: Diane worries a lot because there is a lot to worry about. She doesn’t distract herself with drugs or partying, and those troublesome things do not go away simply because they are not talked about. Diane faces them. 50/50 tells touchingly and with plenty of laughs the story of three young people learning to do the same.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)