Gallows Humor, Without the Laughs

Was there even hope for a stoner comedy about a young cancer patient?

In the pantheon of tastelessness designed to make you laugh at diarrhea, menstruation, masturbation, yeast infections, fellatio and worse, you can now add a stupid horror called 50/50. Artificial, irresponsible, filthy and forgettable, it knocks itself cross-eyed trying to make you roar with laughter at chemotherapy, with the nauseating Seth Rogen milking most of the yuks. But a stoner comedy about cancer? I don’t think so.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has two expressions—sleepy and catatonic—and he wears them ragged as Adam Lerner, a 27-year-old reporter for National Public Radio stationed in Seattle who sinks into an understandable depression when he is diagnosed with malignant tumors on his spine and given only a 50/50 chance of survival.

His best friend is a disgusting moron who is determined to cheer up by using his terminal illness to attract girls. Can Rogen play anything else? I think they write disgusting moron parts for him in case Zach Galifianakis or Jack Black are busy playing other disgusting moron roles elsewhere, and he plays them all the same way. Anyway, in one of the few lines that can be repeated in print, he says, “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds.” In this movie, even the doctors are stupid. Adam’s oncologist is only 24.

Adam: “What are you? Doogie Howser?”
Oncologist: “Who?”
Adam: “Doogie Howser. The teenage doctor.”
Oncologist: “Does he work here?”

These are the jokes, folks.

Part of this movie is about the ghastly ordeal cancer patients go through—pain, syringes, vomiting, coughing up blood and a cold, impersonal medical establishment that places little value on human life. And part of it is about everyone else—caregivers, family members and friends—all of whom care more about themselves than the patient. (All false generalizations for the sake of laughs, and like everything else in the movie, grossly exaggerated.) When Adam undergoes his first chemo treatment, his duplicitous girlfriend (badly overacted by Bryce Dallas Howard) waits four hours in the car because she can’t stand the interiors of hospitals. His stressed-out mother (and what, you may well ask, is Anjelica Huston doing in this blunder?) acts like a cross between Lady Macbeth and Zasu Pitts. Eventually Adam gives up and falls for his psychiatrist (Anna Kendrick) in a sex game that is pure cardboard.

Director Jonathan Levine, who proved his incompetence with two previous disasters, The Wackness and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (a sex thriller so bad it was never widely released in the U.S.), based the film on the autobiographical experiences of the film’s writer, Will Reiser. But nothing about it rings true. The gallows humor is unforgiving and the compassion is synthetic. The film reveals nothing new about advances in cancer research, addresses no issues such as the drug companies suppressing alternative treatments to profit from human suffering. No, it’s just about one guy trying to get laid.

As a nice fellow coming to grips with his own mortality, Gordon-Levitt shows some tenderness that was never on view in grim movies such as Brick and Inception, but his character is so passive it’s hard to get a grip of your own on any kind of reality. Rogen is too vulgar and creepy to be believable as anyone’s friend, but he is convincing as a dedicated believer in the medicinal value of pot smoking. My reaction to everything that happens in 50/50 was, “Why don’t they just walk out?”

But nobody did, so I did it for them.

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