You'd think a movie about a young man battling a terminal disease would be a huge downer -- a la 'Dying Young' -- but '50/50' isn't your average death's door tearjerker. The funny new flick offers plenty of laughs along with the tender moments, and manages to find humor in an incredibly depressing situation.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a 27-year-old radio producer diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that has a 50/50 survival rate. (Hence the title.) His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) becomes Adam's rock, driving him to doctor's appointments and distracting him with nights on the town. Of course, this isn't the first time Rogen has played a character attending to someone facing a terminal disease. Remember 'Funny People'? Rogen dutifully tucked in Adam Sandler's ailing character each night. But I digress. Back to '50/50.'
It's refreshing to see a 'terminal illness' movie that isn't all about a doting woman nursing the patient back to health (cough, cough, 'Dying Young'), and ultimately leading into a sappy, sappy, sad, sappy love story.
After all, it's pretty easy for this particular genre to get schmaltzy. (Cough, cough, 'A Walk to Remember.') Sure: 'Terms of Endearment' is a great movie, but everything about it seems carefully calculated to extract tears.
If you're looking for something a little more subversive with plenty of inappropriate death-related jokes, you may want to try one of these instead. Behold, a list of my five favorite movies about people battling terminal illness. (Sorry, 'Last Holiday.' You didn't make the cut. While I like the premise of this Queen Latifah laugh-riot, the flick itself falls very, very short. And even though I give 'The Bucket List' credit for popularizing the phrase and tackling death in a fresh new way, watching Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman skydiving didn't quite make my top-5.)
'The Royal Tenenbaums.' Royal's stomach cancer may not be real, but I would still argue that this fits the 'terminal illness' genre because of how his alleged illness causes everyone around him to behave. Royal's fake cancer wins him a spot back in the family home, and garners attention from his estranged family. Sure, he gets caught. But he got in some much-needed face time with the family while the ruse lasted.
'Igby Goes Down.' I realize it may be a bit of a spoiler to reveal who comes down with the terminal illness in this flick, so I won't. I will say that it made my list because of its refreshingly cynical approach to death. A lot of flicks present the dying person as some sort of flawless angel. Not this one. (Bonus points for featuring Bill Pullman AND Jeff Goldblum. Extra bonus points for seeing Kieran Culkin yell 'Sookie!!' to Claire Danes years before Bill and Eric made it all the rage on 'True Blood.')
'Beaches.' OK, it's a little schmaltzy. But Bette Midler saves 'Beaches' from being too syrupy sweet. Her dying BFF of 30 years, Hillary, was kind of a rich bitch at times, but ultimately their friendship was able to stand up to betrayal, jealousy and even a bizarre love triangle. The Divine One gets to share Hillary's last moments with her at the beach. Like '50/50,' this is a touching story about friendship. Plus, it's the flick that brought us 'The Wind Beneath My Wings.'
'Moulin Rouge.' It figures Satine (Nicole Kidman) would meet the man of her dreams (Ewan McGregor) just before falling ill with TB! (The old-timey disease is a good reminder that this super-stylized movie is indeed a period piece.) Even though there are plenty of professions of undying love, the singing, dancing and John Leguizamo keep 'Moulin Rouge' from being just another tragic love story.
'My Life Without Me.' As if being diagnosed with a terminal illness at age 23 wasn't bad enough, Ann (Sarah Polley) also has a husband (Scott Speedman) and two kids. Damn! She embarks on her own bucket-listy journey, which includes some steamy encounters with Mark Ruffalo. Again, this one scores points for eschewing the whole dying-person-can-do-no-wrong trap.
('50/50' image courtesy of Summit Entertainment)