50/50: Cancer is hilarious?

No. But also sometimes.

When it releases, 50/50 is going to evoke a wide range of responses depending on the audience’s experience with disease. People who haven’t had—or been immersed in the culture of—cancer won’t feel the tug, the gnawing hook it’s left behind in the stomachs of those who’ve lived with it. They’ll understand the heartwarming parts, and the romance, and the friendship, but they won’t grasp the nightmare buzzing plague lurking between the lines of dialogue.

I watched cancer eat my little sister alive. People like me will experience it differently.

There is a spectrum of reaction whenever you place the words “cancer” and “comedy” in the same sentence. For some people, the possibility of filming a comedy focused on cancer is obscene, exploitative, disrespectful, sacrilegious. They fear the subject matter will be treated lightly.

On the other end, there are those of us who have to treat the subject with a caustic edge, lest it kills us. Black humor dilutes the pain, lets us view the horror of disease through a different lens.

The second group will appreciate 50/50 more, as the film’s use of profanity and irreverent view towards the stricken might offend those who prefer to see survivors and sufferers alike through rose-colored glass. But no one can accuse the writers, directors, and actors of disrespect.

Probably spoilers below this point.

Specific, dark humor in 50/50 is offset by an honest, if-not-entirely-brutal depiction of how cancer affects the diagnosed and everyone in their life. JGL is in turns calm, abrasive, and totally despondent. In the night before a major surgery, he chokes one line into his phone that totally encapsulates the cancer experience: “I’m tired. I just want it to be over.

Cancer is exhaustion. Accurately represented in the film, a day in the life of the sick is marked by vomiting, physical and emotional fatigue, and a difficulty in communication. These symptoms are given equal screen time with the comedic scenes highlighting the idiosyncrasies of a cancer patient.

The characters surrounding JGL are pulled down into this same exhaustion. His girlfriend—too weak to provide the emotional support he wants, and the lifestyle support he needs—falls apart and cheats on him. His mother, also saddled with the responsibility of a husband with Alzheimer’s, worries about him every second, which only provides a drain on him as well. His best friend (played perfectly by Seth Rogen, who always acts more effectively in a supporting role) tries to distract him and provide an emotional crutch, a tiring role to play.

I watched my sister deteriorate in the same kind of situation. She was worn down by the end, bone-tired by the need to remain optimistic, somehow responsible for supporting those of us who gathered to provide support.

After a trip to IMDB and a follow-up to a Huffington Post article, I learned the writer of 50/50, Will Resier, is a cancer survivor himself. This makes perfect sense. After my sister died, I tried to write about the experience. It was tough and painful, but also cathartic. I can only imagine what it feels like for Reiser to have written this script, to look back at that grueling, arid experience and to create something out of it. Not only could it help him process his own recovery, but it provides a realistic story for someone like me to watch and appreciate.

By depicting the complicated relationships that cancer creates, treating the subject not with kid gloves but with a raw examination, 50/50 hit me hard. It’s difficult to explain even in words, the only outlet I really have. I’ve heard cancer jokes before, the kind that made me furious, electrified my eyes, and this isn’t it. This is okay.


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