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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: Shallow ‘50/50’ Fails to Resonate

True-life-inspired tale of a young man's experience with cancer skims over the big questions

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman |

2 Stars — Weak

When 27-year old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levett) is diagnosed with cancer, he is faced with the kinds of questions one hopes to have to face only when becoming old: What did I do with my life? Did I make choices that brought me happiness? What would I do differently?

50/50 is a fictional but semi-autobiographical story by Will Reiser, who wrote the story to pay his medical bills. The degree to which this story is a reflection of real life, it is poignant in its questions asked, challenging in its emotional impact and sad in its depiction of a life lived far below its potential.

Adam lives the carefree existence of a young man, typical of many who just work to get by. His job is not a “calling,” his girlfriend is shallow, his best friend is emotionally challenged and his relationship with his parents is tense. When a life-threatening illness makes him reflect on what is most important in his life, we walk with him in this journey of self-discovery.

The girlfriend with whom Adam lives is only committed to him while the going is good. His best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), sticks by his side through thick and thin, but his life’s philosophy is that life is just one long string of sexual exploits and that even cancer can attract more sex out of sympathy.

The real tragedy in the story is what little role-modeling he learned from his parents. His relationship with his mother, Diane (Angelica Huston), is conflictual, and he views her only as a meddling nuisance. His father is suffering from a loss of mental faculty and is emotionally distant.

A redeeming fact that comes with having to face the disappointment in his life is that he experiences emotions that he has buried for years. Adam does come to appreciate that his shallow friend Kyle is committed to being honest and available at every step along the way as he faces his debilitating physical and emotional disintegration. He also begins to realize that his mother, whom he treats as smothering and neurotic, has been trying as best she can to show her support for him.

The one person who is a bright light at the end of the tunnel is a hospital therapist his own age who is assigned to help him transition through the inevitable emotions he will face. Katie (Anna Kendrick) is a doctoral student for whom Adam is only her second patient. Despite Adam’s fatalistic and sarcastic comments about her lack of experience, he comes to realize that she is the only person in his life asking probing questions in a way that deepens his understanding of who he is and what he can become. While Katie’s questions are challenging, there is little wisdom or spiritual guidance in anything that she shares, leaving Adam to try to make sense of his life in an existential vacuum.

The best part of 50/50 is that all of us are challenged to know how we would respond in a similar situation. What relationships would we deem to be important, and what would we discard? The tragedy of 50/50 is that it only gives us shallow answers. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many years you live since we are all destined to physically die, but rather we should be measured by how well we lived. To beat cancer, but only learn to seek a better girlfriend out of life, is a worse tragedy than the cancer itself.

Discussion

» Have you faced a life-threatening illness in yourself or someone close to you? How did you change because of that experience?

» It is difficult to know how to respond to the fears a friend has when they know they are dying. What have you found helpful?

» If a life-threatening illness was potentially going to take your life, what would be the one relationship of the people close to you that you would want to heal before you died?”

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.




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