Sunday, March 17, 2013

50/50 -- facing death, embracing life

Director: Jonathan Levine, 2012 (R)

“You have cancer.” No one wants to hear those dreaded words, especially when mumbled from the mouth of an insensitive oncologist who knows you not at all.  And to discover that the odds of survival are 50-50, a coin-toss, would be devastating.  A movie based on this premise would seem depressing, yet Levine’s film, based on a screenplay by Will Reiser, is actually both poignant and hilarious, in a raunchy sort of way.

Joseph Gordon-Leavitt (Inception, Looper), the new omnipresent movie star, plays Adam, a 27 year-old writer for NPR in Seattle (although the film is actually shot up in Canada). His life is fine. He has a good job, a beautiful girlfriend Rachael, (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help), and a tight best bud Kyle (Seth Rogen). He is avoiding his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston, Manhattan Murder Mystery), since she is overprotective and overbearing. He doesn’t even drive, as it is “too dangerous”. All in all, his life is pain and risk-free.  Then he sees his doctor for some nagging back pain. He finds out that he has a rare form of spinal cancer, one with sufficient syllables to spell big trouble. Researching on the internet, as we all do now when faced with medical problems, he discovers that the likelihood of beating this thing are 50-50. So, he begins chemotherapy with a good attitude, determined not to be a bother to anyone. He even tells Rachel she can move on, if she likes. He gives her an out, which she refuses to take, succumbing to the societal pressure to stay . . . at least for a while.

As he begins his life after diagnosis, Adam starts seeing a psychologist. But he is surprised to find she is even younger than him. Katherine (Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air) is a grad student, and he is only her third patient.

Reiser has created a terrific script. Based on his own life circumstance of battling cancer as a young man, he describes the effects of friendship and relationship on the patient. Indeed, his friend Seth Rogen was one of the friends that helped him through, as he is here for Adam.

One of the emphases of the film is on how we as a society deal with the imminence of death. How do we relate and even speak to those facing their own mortality.

In the early diagnosis scene, Adam drops into denial: “A tumor? Me? That doesn’t make any sense, though, I mean. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I recycle.” Initial response is to downplay and deny. But as the patient, that cannot last too long, since chemo will put a sudden halt to that.

But those around him face the awkwardness of not knowing what to say, how to treat him. When Kyle throws a “celebration of life” party for his workmates, even though his chemo has barely begun, his friends gather around to awkwardly hug or speak to him. Adam points out, “That’s what everyone has been telling me from the beginning. ‘Oh, you’re gonna be okay,’ and ‘Oh, everything’s fine,’ and like it’s not. It makes it worse. . . that no one will just come out and say it. Like, ‘hey man, you’re gonna die.’ “

Even Katherine, who is supposed to know what to say and what to do, says the wrong thing. She speaks book knowledge, as though reciting her text books from memory. But without knowing and relating to her patient, this is superficial and not helpful. She thinks she has the right words, but they come out hollow and empty.

We don’t want to speak the truth, because we are afraid it will not help. Saying some kind untruths, like these, seems a safer and perhaps nicer thing to do. But as Adam declares, it’s actually much worse. It’s alleviating ourselves without helping our friend.

The Bible gives us an example of saying the wrong thing as well as doing the right thing. In the Old Testament, Job lost everything: his fortune, his family (Job 1) and then his health (Job 2). His three friends came to visit and console him. For seven days they simply sat with him quietly, just being there with him and for him (Job 2:13). This silent sympathy helped, but then they opened their mouths and started berating him. Trying to help, they poured more trouble on a hurting man.

When we can’t say the right thing, it is better to say nothing. Paul tells us in the Romans, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12;15). He also tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). If we cannot speak the truth, we must avoid speaking the lie, that all is well when it clearly is not. To say the wrong thing pours vinegar on the open wound. Kyle understood this, even in his childish way, and tried to speak truth. The most honest friend to Adam was a fellow cancer patient he met in chemo, he told him he would die. Perhaps too blunt, at least he pointed to the elephant in the room.

What makes this film work, apart from the excellent script, is the chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen. They fit well together, as chalk and cheese buddies. Where Adam is quiet and calm, Kyle is loud and raunchy. Yet, in his way Kyle really wants to help.  Unlike Rachael, who can’t face the reality of nursing a person through cancer, Kyle remains a friend, even when he does and says things wrong. His love is evident even in those moments.

One scene stands out, and is the turning point in Adam’s journey. It is when he goes back to chemo to find one of his new friends missing. This man has died. Though he seemed full of life the day before, he is gone. This, more than anything, forces Adam to face up to his potentiality. And when he does, he realizes relationships are more important than his ordered living.

Perhaps here is the message of the film. Life is risky. Danger surrounds us. But so, too, do our relationships. We may push away those who seem to be too much, our parents or siblings. But life is too short to avoid risk, even if we could. We must accept what we are given. We must embrace our loved ones. We must savor our relationships. They may be disappear in an instant. As the apostle James says, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (Jas. 4:14) 

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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