I don’t remember if I even saw a trailer for this movie or not, maybe I just saw posters and heard about it at TIFF — but either way, this dramatic comedy came out of left field and hit me hard. The last time I was this emotionally invested into a movie and it’s characters was with Will Smith’s Seven Pounds (2008). But 50/50 was incredible.
Here’s the basic synopsis: “Adam tackles the everyday struggles of being diagnosed with Cancer, and in the process, learns who is really important in his life.” Now before I go into the details (SPOILERS BELOW THE JUMP) I just want to say that a story told this well is a story worth watching, regardless of subject matter. Buzz on the internet was that a “comedy about cancer doesn’t have a large audience, so it might not do so well at the box office.” Look at Milk (2008) or The Help (2011). Both of those had touchy subject matter, and yet they held their ground just fine. And just because Seth Rogen is attached doesn’t mean the humor is going to reflect Knocked Up or Pineapple Express in any way. It was actually the opposite -no offence to either of those movies, they were great in their own way- but here the humour was tasteful and hit at all the right moments.
Upon my second viewing of this movie, I was able to pull myself away from the extremely powerful emotional current that pulls you under, and actually analyse what it was doing in terms of script, structure, and technique.
First of all, I noticed a ton of small subplots that really subtly kept our mood in check. For example, the volcano radio-story Adam was researching paralleled his emotional arc. At the beginning the volcano is dormant and keeping everything just below the surface. Adam is the only person in the world that seems to even know about it. Then, (besides a few jokes cracked by his boss) we forget about it until Adam see’s a quick news clip about it about an hour and a half into the film. At this point his character arc is hitting rock bottom, and the news clip says the volcano is unexpectedly out of control and lava is exploding everywhere. Now the whole world is paying attention to it. Talk about narrative efficiency – using something as irrelevant as the project he is working on at work to shape such an important story point.
Another thing I noticed was the timing of scenes that were set ups for strong plot points. For example, we hardly know this Mitch character (the old bald one), but just a few scenes before we learn about his death we see a tender moment between him and his wife, and that really invests us in the richness of his character. The movie quickly steps away for a scene or two, and then BAM, we learn Mitch is dead. Had these two ‘Mitch’ scenes be any further apart (or back to back), the whole thing would seem unnatural/forced and we would feel cheated. Timing was everything here, and it was executed perfectly.
Finally, my favorite part about the screenwriting in this film was that barely anything happened TO the characters (besides cancer, I guess). Every scene was driven BY the character and their emotions. The best example is the night before Adams big surgery. It’s late, and Adam and Kyle are sitting on a park bench. Kyle is drinking. You can feel that Adam is nervous about the next day, and that this might be his last night alive – but this nervousness leaks out slowly. First he spontaneously asks to drive. Then out of the blue he freaks out, backs up into a bike rack and speeds down the wrong way of a one-way street. You can tell none of this is planned at all, and he is letting happen minute by minute. He yells at Kyle and shoves him out of his own car. After a beat, he screams in frustration. Then he phones his ‘therapist’ and tells her he wishes she was his girlfriend. Again, in the writing, you can tell none of it was planned. Even at the beginning of the phone call, he had no idea what he would say by the end of it.
Overall, this movie knew how to make the audience feel the raw emotion of each character. At these moments where you felt the most exposed, it gently cracked a joke to lighten the mood. When the therapist (Katherine) met Adams family and Kyle, for example, was during a really intense ‘waiting room’ scene, but the meeting itself was extremely comical. A great script with amazing timing and strong characters made this theatre experience what it was, and justifies it’s appearance at TIFF.
50/50 (2011) was written by Will Reiser and directed by Jonathan Levine.