50/50 and Mortality

Finally got to see 50/50, and it was about as good as I expected wanted it to be.  It’s rated above the Pooh line, and deserves to be (unlike a certain movie that styles itself as being about statistics and sports, but that’s really about how good everyone thinks Brad Pitt looks doing everyday things like eating, driving and listening to the radio).  **Just going to warn you, there are spoiler alerts if you read on – if you plan on seeing it, I’d stop here, and just trust me that it’s worth seeing.**

But one thing bugs me, and that’s how many people will miss the point of this movie.  Most will go into the theatre and come out with a hopeful, rosy sense of life – that things work out for good people.  As the main character, Adam, himself says upon receiving his diagnosis “A tumor?  Me?  That doesn’t make sense.  I don’t smoke, I don’t drink.  I recycle.”  And in the end, he’s right – it all works out for him.  But I think the film is trying to say more about mortality than this simple moral give and take.  First of all, it struck me that the first half of the movie was spent placating all of the people in his life NOT dying, but rather dealing (or not dealing, as is the case of his girlfriend) with him dying.  Now, hilarity ensues, but not without a hint of cold honesty and callousness.  I think it highlights the inability of humans to come to terms with their mortality.  No one likes to talk about mortality, no one likes to think about it – and yet, there it is staring each of us in the face on a daily basis, dictating what we do every second of our lives in some small way or another.  It takes a life event such as a rare cancer or the death of someone else to make one stand up and acknowledge Death, standing next to one and looking over one’s shoulder at every turn.  I feel like this movie got this discomfort, and portrayed Adam’s (and those around him) gradual understanding of it sublimely.

There was this morality play we read in high school called Everyman.  The story is about a guy – Everyman – who is dying, and tries to rely on and barter everyone and everything in his life – his money, his political power, his friends, his family – in order to not face death alone.  In the end, he comes to the realization that everyone – everyman – faces death alone, bare and naked.  I kind of liked how that played out in 50/50 as well.  I thought it was the most poignant part of the movie, his slow descent into despair on his way into surgery.  Enraged and nostalgic, the night before, regretful that he never learned how to drive or that he never got to say he loved a woman before he could potentially die; seemingly at peace as he hugs his loyal friend goodbye in the car.  Nervous, and intellectual, as the anesthesiologist preps him for surgery; and finally scared, his fear laid out on his hospital gurney before his parents, his last source of moral support.  The whole latter half of the movie, starting with his breakup, sped on by the death of his chemo friend, could be the modern interpretation of Everyman, each pole of support knocked out from under him as he goes to face his mortality.

And yet, he survives the surgery.  I guess if there is one thing I don’t like about this movie is how the main character wasn’t allowed to die.   I couldn’t get over this dissonance.  Thankfully, it’s a mere 5 minutes of the movie, and it doesn’t really ruin the rest.  The lesson isn’t learned if the protagonist doesn’t go to face the consequences in the end.  It just seems like a long and normal life stretches on from the end of the movie.  “So, what now?” asks his therapist-girlfriend at the end of the movie.  Yeah, what now?  The story is over, but it’s not really over.  I guess that’s the hope that it leaves you with; that cancer can just be a blip, and inconvenience in your life, and, once you’ve defeated it, re-connected with your family, tested the loyalty of your best friend, and won the heart of the neurotic, slovenly, therapist, you can just go back to ignoring your mortality.  Well ok then.

Leave a Reply