Roberto Benigni made a funny movie about the Holocaust in Life is Beautiful and Tom Hanks made having special needs a laugh riot in Larry Crowne, but cancer might be the toughest of all subjects to wring laughs out of. When I referenced Truly Tasteless Jokes, I found sections devoted to all kinds of ethnic groups, AIDS, and Helen Keller, but there were no jokes about cancer.
The new movie 50/50 kind of tries to get you laughing about its protagonist, a twentysomething hipster, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, being diagnosed with the disease. They feed his face with medicinal marijuana. They give him a buddy who tries to get him to use his illness as a way to pick up sympathetic women. And cancer frees Gordon-Levitt to not take any lip from anyone.
But one major strike against this movie in its attempt for comedic gold (or even bronze) is that it casts Seth Rogen as the supportive best friend. There might not be an actor in the history of cinema who finds himself as amusing as Rogen, yet provides as few laughs. He plays that weird, new archetype of a character who proves he is a best friend by being a jerk.
50/50 is more effective when it moves into tearjerker territory. While it does not give you memorable or unique characters, to the movie’s credit the story is told competently enough so that you will have to wipe your nose on your sleeve a few times as it chronicles the battle against cancer. It’s hard to block up the tear ducts when a character who has a zeal for life, gets buried.
I’m not sure who this movie was made for. It’s not funny, nor does it hit those soulful notes that might make the movie transcendent and inspiring. But there are people out there who consider Garden State a masterpiece. And since 50/50 is greatly influenced by that movie, perhaps it will have a following beyond the Lifetime disease movie of the week (with a hipper soundtrack and more famous faces) it is comparable to.