So, Did You Hear the One About the Guy Dying of Cancer?
by Eric J Baker
Rare is the friendship both instant and lasting.
Near the close of my seemingly endless trek through college, I worked at an electronics store, briefly as a shitty salesman but mostly supervising general merchandise, where staff turnover was continuous. One morning yet another transient reported for duty. Jaded beyond all recognition, I tossed out my usual, disinterested, “So what’s your deal?”
“Well, I do like Fulci movies,” was the reply.
Fulci? You’re gonna bring up Fulci to me? You must have, because I’m the only one here.
I turned. “So, do you lean toward Zombie or The Beyond?”* BAM! Instant friendship. No turning back.
I eventually left the store to finish my damned degree (for christsake!) but continued to meet up with the boys for food and drink. My buddy, who we’ll call ‘Ricky Roma,’ had a quiet intelligence, was undemonstrative (except for the time he ripped his uniform in half – while wearing it – to let management know he disagreed with their policies), and a snarky sense of humor. The kind of guy who loves to insult people without them knowing it.
Then he got cancer. The last couple of times we hung out before the diagnosis, he seemed sluggish and a step or two behind the conversation. When he finally went to the doctor, he was rushed to the hospital for a massive blood transfusion, having bled internally to the point that he should have been dead. Before any of us knew what was happening, he was in surgery. Ricky was not yet 30.
I’d say it’s a general rule of comedy that cancer isn’t funny. Everyone has been touched by it in some way, including you and me. No one makes cancer jokes. No one except Seth Rogen, that is.
This Friday saw the release of 50/50, the new buddy comedy/cancer tragedy (how often does one get to write that?) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a radio writer with an out-of-his-league girlfriend, an ailing father, a boss who cares more about filling airtime than broadcasting substance, and a loyal friendship with Kyle (Rogen, also the film’s producer), a horny goofball who won’t take life seriously. In other words, the usual frustrations and pleasures we all experience, often simultaneously. Then Adam’s world is shattered when he learns the back pain he’s been feeling is actually spinal cancer. As he begins a treatment program that devastates his body and drains his spirit, relationships are tested and broken, and surprising new ones are formed.
I don’t recall ever sitting in the theater and hearing an audience’s tears alternate with roars of laughter for 90 straight minutes. It turns out that cancer is pretty fucking hilarious. Seth Rogen, who can be overbearing as a lead but great as a supporting character, gets most of the big laughs as he spews a relentless stream of profanity and shockingly inappropriate comments about death, women, sex, disease, and dead celebrities. I almost understand our blogmaster James Killough’s bizarre attraction to the man (though his Elliot Spitzer fixation is still bloody freaking weird).
Gordon-Levitt hits all the right notes in an understated lead performance, playing straight man to Rogen and eliciting sobs from moviegoers when his stoic façade begins to crack in the face of his looming mortality. The beautiful Bryce Dallas Howard (she didn’t get her looks from Dad, that’s for sure) is strong as Rachael, the shallow girlfriend trying desperately to be caring and failing miserably. In a smaller role as Adam’s mother, the great (duh) Anjelica Huston avoids the Meryl Streep “I’m gunning for the Best Supporting Actress nomination” approach, instead playing it subtle and real.**
And Anna Kendrick as Katherine, Adam’s hopelessly inexperienced therapist… With profound apologies to 98% of the people who read this blog, you have to be a total homo not to have an aching crush on her by the end of the film. It’s cute versus beautiful in this flick, and Kendrick’s cute edges Howard’s beautiful by a dimple.
I believe that with all films, no matter whose name is attached, “it’s the script, stupid.” That said, while an action or horror film with a lousy script can be salvaged by deft direction (see my recent post on Marcus Nispel), a character-driven tale depends less the skill of the director and more on the writing and the chemistry of the stars. Besides being well written, 50/50 works largely because the cast clicks. You believe in the relationships, and the contrivances, present in all stories, go unnoticed.
Jonathan Levine’s direction is appropriately unobtrusive, though I wonder what the deal is with the cheap-chic trend in cinematography this autumn. 50/50 looks like it was shot with the same kind of junky film stock Fulci used for the Gates of Hell and New York Ripper. Or is it that I’ve seen so many summer blockbusters projected digitally that normal movies now look cheap? Or maybe this theater just uses bad projector bulbs.
Before you go thinking, “Baker, stop seeing movies at that dump,” you should know that this theater did something I’ve never witnessed before Friday night, which was to give away candy, soda, and popcorn to anyone with a ticket. Yup, free concessions… free as a wayward hiker in Iran, in fact. Since you are dying to know, I got a cherry coke, Nestlé crunch, and, well, popcorn is popcorn. It was easily the highlight of America’s current slide into third-world-country status. Remember when people had money and could pay for snacks?
So anyway, 50/50 almost made me cry, and I am a soulless, empty husk of a human, so you’ll probably go through a pack of Kleenex (one of those travel packs, not a box. If you go through a whole box of tissues in an hour and a half, you have a nasty infection and should see an ENT right away). I won’t tell you who lives and who dies, because you should find out for yourself.
I can tell you who lives at the end of a different story, and that’s my buddy Ricky, who’s closing in on ten years cancer free and is more cynical and snarky than ever. He’s one of those perpetually irritated people who can’t stand anybody but is courteous to them out of spite. He won’t cut you off on the highway, hit on your girlfriend, or refuse to give up a table at a crowded coffee shop, as some do, despite not having ordered a drop of the stuff in three hours. Ricky will barely make eye contact with the waitress at such a place, but he’ll leave a big tip every time.
When he was sick, I brought him a book to kill time in the hospital. It was a monograph, of sorts, about the making of Wes Craven’s nasty and mean-spirited 1972 grindhouse flick Last House on the Left, including a photo gallery in the middle detailing the murder of a character who is graphically hacked up and disemboweled. Which is exactly what a guy on morphine who just got cut open, had large portions of organs removed, and faces debilitating chemotherapy wants to read. I could have brought the Calvin and Hobbes Compendium or a large-print edition of something by Dave Barry (amusing without being funny enough to hurt your incision with laughter). But no, I chose a book about a gang of thugs who rape and torture two girls to death, only to have one girl’s parents seek brutal revenge with chainsaws and penis biting (don’t ask).
He never told me what he thought of the book, though I imagine he wanted to say, “Jesus, Baker, are you fucking retarded?” But that’s OK, because good friendships endure more than horribly inappropriate gifts and the snarky responses that follow.
*we agreed that Zombie is an unheralded classic and that The Beyond is overrated tripe.
**yeah, yeah, I know. Steep is brilliant. STFU.