Death is a difficult thing to come to terms with in Australia, not just because it’s inherently scary but because it’s effectively absent. In less fortunate countries death is a reality people adjust to at an early age. But the Western characters in the film 50-50 are more in a state of shock than grief when the grim reaper comes calling.
50-50 is the story of the aptly named Adam Lerner, a likeable but quiet young man who takes a simple back pain to his doctor and is told he has developed a tumor on his spine. In the time it takes to say a single sentence his future prospects are reduced to the toss of a coin:
Adam: A tumor?
Dr. Ross: Yes.
Dr. Ross: Yes.
Adam: That doesn’t make any sense though. I mean… I don’t smoke, I don’t drink… I recycle…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, 500 Days of Summer) injects a palpable confusion into this emotional comedy. He faithfully conveys the embarrassment, uneasiness and eventually anger that arises when people find themselves facing a fate that finds them unprepared. Not that death is unfair; Adam soon finds himself in the company of aging people with the same limited prospects. The book of Ecclesiastes says ‘The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning.’ But thanks to our relative safety and prosperity in the Western world death most often takes places at a distance, behind closed (hospital) doors.
Seth Rogen plays Adam’s crass friend Kyle whose determination to help him make the most of ‘this cancer thing’ on the dating scene is another attempt to accept the unacceptable. Kyle’s encouragement is as sincere as it is clumsy, but ultimately as unhelpful as Adam’s over-protective mother (Anjelica Houston) or his compassionate grief counselor, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). When the helplessness of his situation finally hits home Adam screams in a parked car until he feels like he’s fractured his larynx. Compassion, he tells Katherine, has to make room for reality:
Adam: That’s what everyone has been telling me since 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.”
Adam facing the final coin toss for his life is an extremely moving piece of cinema, but not just because of the excellent acting. Everyone wants to help this obviously hurting young man but they can do little more than promise to hold his hand because they have no answers to the end of life.
What a different scene it might have been if one of them had been able to say with certainty that they knew what happened next. How much peace might Adam have had if they’d introduced him to someone who’d been through the veil and come back again? If you’d truly like to help a bright young thing, show them 50-50 then ask them what they’re trusting will get them through.