50/50 Suffers from Sethrogenoma: a Non-Recommendation from Steve

I’m glad that I watched this movie by myself. That is not because I would have been embarrassed by shedding tears. Anyone who has watched a movie with me knows that I don’t worry about that. I love when a movie touches me in a way that makes me cry. As a cancer survivor, I was hoping that 50/50 would bring forth a healthy dose of tears. I didn’t shed a single drop. I’m glad that I was alone because my demeanor during the film may have distracted my viewing partners. I found myself repeatedly yelling “Bulls***” at the screen. This is not normal behavior for me. When I see something poorly done in a movie, I usually just shake my head, so why the strong reaction to this one? I wanted to love this movie. I hoped it would leap into my top 5 for the year. I wanted it to resonate with my cancer experience. I wanted to enjoy a great performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of my current favorite actors. It didn’t leap. It didn’t resonate. Rather than bringing enjoyment, it pissed me off.

The problem is not that this movie is about cancer, but rather that it suffers from a cancer. I would name this cancer Sethrogenoma. I was worried that Seth Rogen would ruin 50/50 for me, but I hoped that maybe he would bring more to this movie than his usual schtick, just as Jonah Hill did in Moneyball. Unfortunately that was not the case.  Instead it was sex and pot jokes ad nauseam. Now I have nothing against sex and pot jokes, but when your entire persona revolves around your dong and your bong, as it seems to for Rogen, then life gets pretty shallow, as do the movies reflecting on that life. This seems to be the only kind of life that the Rogen/Apatow school of film-making has any awareness of. I realize that Rogen didn’t write 50/50. His friend, Will Reiser, wrote the movie based on his own experience with cancer, but that experience plays second fiddle to the Sethrogenoma of sex and pot, with just a bit of true emotion sprinkled in here and there. On the other hand, if Seth Rogen is your friend, maybe that is how you would experience a battle with cancer. From my experience, though, when you are deep into chemotherapy sex drops down quite a few spots on your list of desired activities.

That brings me to the other big fault with this movie. It felt false. The cancer experience felt false. The relationships felt false. Of course, it is no surprise that the relationships felt false. How can you write honestly about relationships if you are infected with Sethrogenoma, which causes you to see women as sexual partners and nothing more? (Here I must give a warning: from this point on I will be including a number of spoilers, including the end of the movie. So, if that concerns you, stop reading for now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.) Some credit has to be given to Reiser for trying to develop the relationship between Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Katherine (Anna Kendrick), but where does even that lead in the end? Katherine asks something along the lines of “What’s going to happen now?” The final shot is Adam with an impish smile on his face. With all that has gone on before, you have to assume he is thinking about sex. I suppose you could read that as a sign that everything is going to be o.k. My thought at that moment was just sit down and eat the darn pizza before it gets cold!

It was the medical stuff that really got me muttering expletives, from the first meeting with the doctor to the remarkable recovery at the end. We all know there are doctors who lack good bedside manners, but Adam’s oncologist was so cliched as to be completely ineffective as a character. I will say though that the way things went out of focus when Adam heard he had cancer was an effective way to illustrate the shock of hearing that news. Unfortunately, it was one of way too few such instances of insight. Adam did throw up once, but other than that he got off quite easy. I was struck by the fact that Gordon-Levitt’s appearance didn’t change at all throughout the entire movie, other than shaving off his hair, which, as it turns out, was just another plot devise for an attempt to pick up girls. The movement from chemo to surgery seemed abrupt, but then again if his chemo was going so smoothly maybe there was no need for the usual waiting period to recover from the chemo before surgery. If chemo was easy, recovery from surgery was really a piece of cake, especially given the fact that they had remove half of his lower body. At least that seemed to be the way the surgeon described it.

The oncologist was not the only clichéd character. The movie was filled with them. Anjelica Huston was over the top as the over-protective mom, but, to be fair, she wasn’t given much opportunity to do much with the character. Bryce Dallas Howard turned Rachael, Adam’s first girlfriend in the film, into a caricature, which was the same problem she had in The Help. She seems to act the way her father, Ron Howard, directs. I’m of mixed feelings on Anna Kendrick’s performance. She essentially plays the same character here that she played in Up in the Air, once again a naive neophyte. In some ways her character is a clichéd as others in the movie, but she does bring a certain charm to her acting that is undeniable. Gordon-Levitt does a good job here, given the weak material he is given to work with, but, of his work this year, I prefer his offensive character in Hesher to his character in this offensive movie. And now I can look forward to seeing him in 5 movies in 2012, including The Dark Knight Rises and Django Unchained, in which he’ll be directed by Tarantino. Cool! As for Seth Rogen, I’ve maybe said enough. But, on the other hand, there were times in this movie I saw glimmers of hope. I especially liked the scene where Adam shaves his head. Rogen’s reactions were wonderful. My advice, Seth, is to find someone totally apart from the Rogen/Apatow school who will direct you in their movie. We all might be pleasantly surprised. Who knows, maybe even you can be cured of Sethrogenoma.

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