When colleagues and best friends, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Kyle (Seth Rogen), greet each other for the first time in the opening of 50/50, Kyle offers a fist-bump and Adam grabs it like he’s playing rock, paper, scissors. Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, Warm Bodies) sets up a dynamic between the two which establishes Adam as the introvert and Kyle as outspoken; they are paper and rock, symbolic of how their relationship will play out.
Adam is a public-radio segment producer whose incessant back pain leads to the discovery of a fierce tumour that is eating away at the bone and muscle of his lower back (a condition known as schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma). An internet search tells Adam he has a 50 per cent chance of survival – looking up medical conditions on the internet is never a good idea. During Adam’s cancer treatment he’s supported by Kyle, his parents (Angelica Huston and Serge Houde) and a young therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick).
The relationship between Kyle and Adam is essential to 50/50, inspired by the true story of the film's writer/producer Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with cancer at 24. The idea to dramatise Reiser’s experience came from his real-life buddy, Rogen, who he’d meet with during his treatment and joke about cancer comedies as a coping mechanism. In an interview with NPR, Reiser said: “We wanted to do a parody of The Bucket List where you do really absurd and ridiculous things.” Reiser eased back on the outlandish parody idea with 50/50, but the core of the film is the intimate male friendship between Adam and Kyle, which avoids conforming to childish, dude-bro portrayals of male camaraderie.
There’s a lot of love between Adam and Kyle in 50/50 but the film never strays into gay panic territory, which is something Rogen has been known to do in the past. Rogen has built a career on writing, producing and starring in films that focus primarily on male relationships: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, Pineapple Express, Funny People, The Interview and Bad Neighbours. Often, Rogen appears alongside his buddy, James Franco, and their friendship became a running joke of the apocalyptic film, This is the End, with Franco dedicating a mural in his house to their brotherhood.
A lot of Rogen’s films focus on the platonic, heterosexual adoration two men can have for each other. It has long been accepted with female relationships on screen, but any form of intimacy between men is usually followed by someone saying something to the effect of “woah, I’m not gay.” 50/50 explores how deep the bond between Adam and Kyle is during the ultimate test of the fate of a friend. Kyle supports Adam by offering normality without being overbearing or condescending to his diagnosis. They go out to bars, they do drugs and they talk about sex – a lot. Life goes on under the shadow of uncertainty. The title of the film emphasises the gamble of our existence, Kyle says to Adam: “if you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds.” The intimacy extends beyond Adam and Kyle to a group of older men (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall) going through chemotherapy treatment with Adam. Sitting in chairs, hooked up to intravenous drips delivering anti-cancer drugs, the men talk about their circumstances with the candour of a group facing death. So often men are told not show their emotions according to outdated ideas of how men should act. It’s comical, then, that the key way to get men to talk about how they feel is when the grim reaper is calling last drinks. Men in society become isolated and vulnerable when they resist the impulse to talk about how they feel, especially with other men, which is far from a weakness.
There’s a comfort to 50/50 that when things get rough, people are there to care for us beyond token gestures and sympathy. There’s a scene in which Adam takes Kyle home after a night out and he discovers in Kyle’s bathroom a book about supporting people with cancer. Adam flicks through the pages to discover Kyle has been taking notes and highlighting passages. It’s a beautiful moment because we’ve been conditioned to accept Kyle as brash and lazy, when he’s really been working hard the whole time to ensure his best friend is supported during a difficult time. Kyle is the sturdy rock in the friendship hidden behind buffoonery, and 50/50 is the antidote to the toxic masculinity inherent in so much modern filmmaking.
SBS VICELAND: Sunday 16 December, 10.35pm