50/50, a Movie About Terminal Illness, Sidesteps a Big Question December 21, 2011

50/50, a Movie About Terminal Illness, Sidesteps a Big Question

In the recent film 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a young professional with his life seemingly worked out: a rewarding career, a charming girlfriend, and a nice house. But then he hears the worst news he could expect: those pains he’s been having in his back are due to a rare form of spinal cancer.

It’s an R-rated comedy, and the idea was to portray illness in an irreverent and unsentimental way. Seth Rogen is on hand as the best bro, who optimistically sees Levitt’s situation as a hook for meeting women: when they go book shopping, he makes a point of showing a list of books about cancer to one of the store’s clerks, and opening up how strong he’s trying to be for his friend. Anjelica Huston plays the overbearing mother, but she is unceremoniously pushed to the margins for much the story, lest she drag things down with melodrama. And while it does succeed in avoiding a maudlin or melodramatic tone, something glaring is missing from it: the question of an afterlife. No one brings it up.

According to a survey by the Pew Forum on on Religion and Public Life, 74% of Americans profess a belief in life after death. If Levitt’s character is one of the minority, and really goes through cancer treatment without the alleged comfort provided by faith in his continued existence, than this is a distinguishing character trait well worth acknowledging. If he believed, however vaguely, in an afterlife before, I want to know how his confrontation with mortality affects his views. If he did not think about it beforehand, than I want to know what he thinks now.

There are numerous opportunities for brining up the topic, all wasted. He attends therapy sessions with an inexperienced counselor played by Anna Kendrick; he gets high on medicinal marijuana with Rogen, with fellow chemo patients, with women he and his friend pick up from a bar; his girlfriend in the earlier scenes (Bryce Dallas Howard) speaks vaguely of “energy” and “vibes.” But all of these interactions fall flat, and all of the characters remain two-dimensional, despite the best efforts of the capable cast.



I’m pretty sure I know why the filmmakers chose to avoid the question of whether or not death is truly the end ofus: because they didn’t want to alienate anyone. If it turns out that Levitt was an ardent atheist all along, religious moviegoers might recoil. If he turn to Jesus, we rationalists and skeptics might roll our eyes, while the devotees of other religions may feel excluded.


But if you try too hard not to alienate anyone, you fail to excite anyone either. 50/50 opened as the #5  film in the country in September, and has grossed a mediocre $35 million domestically. I don’t think the afterlife issue was solely to blame, but the overall avoidance of substance certainly didn’t help. When it comes to messy and controversial issues, Hollywood needs to start treating us like grown-ups.


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  • Erin W

    Hollywood will be able to treat its viewers like adults when certain segments of the audience stop acting like children every time their beliefs are challenged.

  • Erin W

    Hollywood will be able to treat its viewers like adults when certain segments of the audience stop acting like children every time their beliefs are challenged.

  • Nick

    $35 million domestic gross for a film with an $8 million budget is pretty good if you ask me.

  • Drew Bentley

    It’s a movie out of Hollywood for crying out loud, it’s for entertainment purposes only and for some producers to make a ton of money. I seriously doubt they left the question of “afterlife” out of the movie not to alienate people. These people want you to pay to see a movie, they can care less if they end up alienating you.

  • Anonymous

    The portion of the audience you’re talking about (fundies) has largely sworn off mainstream media anyway. I don’t see why they deserve much consideration by ostensibly secular filmmakers- they make their own movies. They can make their own childish movies, and occasionally show up en masse for something like Passion of the Christ or Chronicles of Narnia. But they would be turned off simply by the lack of religion, by the pot-smoking, by the profanity, by the non-marital sex in 50/50. 

    Most of the religious people who see something like this- maybe they would be provoked by an expression of outright atheism in such a way that they talk about it with their friends, argue about it with a secular co-worker. I don’t know if some controversy and stepped-on toes would have made it a hit, but considering how poorly the film industry is doing, it seems like one of many new things they could try. Shooting for the middle doesn’t seem to be working.

  • Trina

    It *is* a comedy, after all.  I haven’t seen the film yet, so can’t comment otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    But the producers didn’t make a ton of the money. And my argument is that there was probably a financial incentive in trying not to alienate, which did not work out- was that not clear?

  • Anonymous

    The advertising campaign was pretty big, and wide-release distribution is expensive. Summit was trying to turn it into a sleeper hit, it seems.

  • Cabalavatar

    Must we concern ourselves with overwrought concern for death when we confront tragic illness? Is that a pre-requisite? If it is, let us abandon that version of art as _50/50_ does. The movie explores a serious amount of character development and exploration WITHOUT resorting to stereotypical roles or predictable emotions. What the writer of this post wants is the typical, the usual appeals to human emotion. We don’t NEED that. This movie plays on so many uncomfortable and appropriately inappropriate moments and dimensions of human emotions already.

    I noticed and was happily surprised by the lack of references to and concern about death and the so-called after life. Here, a movie was seriously (even and especially in its humour) looking at tragic illness in the moment, at the illness itself, and not the religious, secular, or anti-religious views on the subject would be. One day, I hope that we’ll arrive at a scene in which we don’t need to focus (as the writer of this post would have us do) on death and after life. The end is just the end. This illness, however, is not necessarily the end of physical life for this character, so it doesn’t _require_ focus.

  • Patrik W

    I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds like the main character is making the best out of the only life he has, however tragic it is with regards to terminal illness. And really, can we ask for more? Isn’t that one of Dawkins’, to name one, biggest arguments against religion? That we throw away our only life with hopes of a better afterlife.

    So when a film maker actually does it the only way it should be done, without mixing it with supernatural bullshit, they’re suddenly in the wrong?

    I do get the feeling that some people are simply looking for things to point out as wrong, instead of cherishing what finally turned out right.

  • Anonymous

    The possibility of death is an essential part of the character’s struggle. My contention is that the fact he expresses at no time a belief in the afterlife is a potentially strong character trait, but goes unacknowledged. I want to know what’s behind this. And the character needed to be a lot more interesting anyway. All those superficial traits- he’s neat, he doesn’t drive, he doesn’t like to drink- don’t ever really cohere into a fully-fledged personality. Whatever sympathy I felt for him was due to the appeal that Levitt brought to the role; as written, the character was too much of a blank. 

    So blank that a somewhat religious viewer may miss the significance of the lack of religious references. Which is what the filmmakers probably wanted, after all. 

    In reality, someone who faces cancer without a belief in the beyond in our society can be fascinating and heroic. I once encountered an atheist cancer survivor who had horror stories about the level of Christian privilege in the illness community, and how inescapable the superstitions of others was for her. The film takes place in Seattle, a far more secular city than Tulsa, but I have difficulty believing that a cancer patient would evade proselytization, that the topic or question would never come up. 

    This movie is not a profound and challenging ideological statement (though it might have been if it was presented as an alternate, superstition-free universe, or a future when religion has ceased to matter to anyone); it’s a comfortable lie. 

    [Contains grammar/spelling edits]

  • The problem is in saying they had a financial incentive for it, and then also saying there is no evidence of a financial incentive (they didn’t make money).

  • I agree. I think that an ideal movie would handle it this way, by never wasting time addressing/promoting the woo.

  • Give me a break – it was the best movie I’ve seen all year… I watched it with a mix of Christian and atheist friends and we all enjoyed it. If they took a stance on the afterlife, it would have been awkward and unnecessary.

  • Anonymous

    Ikiru is a film about a dying man that achieved what you’re talking about. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and a masterpiece on a the same level as Casablanca and The Godfather. When I last watched it, I didn’t notice a discussion of an afterlife (It’s about time to watch it again anyway), but if it’s missing completely, I wouldn’t mind. Japan is a very secular nation, and even most of the superstitious don’t have  a pronounced belief in an afterlife. And the protagonist told hardly anyone about his illness in the course of the film.
    This one, however, was aggressively trivial, and could only have benefited from an honest discussion of what cancer patients in a culture heavily influenced by religion would actually deal with in terms of superstition being foisted upon them, or participating in it themselves. Ikiru may be too high a standard to judge by, but I that doesn’t change the fact that this could have been a lot better.

  • Anonymous

    A poor box office performance is by no means evidence of a lack of desire to make money. The big studios are notoriously inept and wasteful. 

    It was a mainstream film, released nationally, advertised heavily. Someone wanted to make money. It didn’t make as much as a film with the kind of marketing push this one had usually does, so the long-term goal was not achieved.
    The pattern of provocation and controversy being relegated to art and exploitation films, while commercial films avoid offense is pretty well established. But Hollywood studios are in deep shit: ticket sales are down $1 billion this year, and they’ve been stagnant throughout the decade. 

    The quest to avoid pissing most people off with a wide-release film seems to be a sort of conventional wisdom, one that I think should be challenged. 

    This is a general subject I’m realizing I need to make myself clearer on. I will write more extensively about this (and provide more evidence) in the near future.

  • Placibo Domingo


    I have to say I don’t get much out of your critique of this movie.  I found it to be moving, and very funny. It’s based on a true story, so if issues of afterlife really weren’t part of that story, or of what the film maker wanted to say, then it’s not really fair to criticize it because it didn’t have the agenda you wanted.

  • Achess

    Not with you on that one Hemant. I’ve seen the movie, and not for one second did I think: “Hey!, something is missing. It’s awkward they didn’t mention religion…”

    Quite the contrary: I believe they did a pretty good job portraying a difficult situation many of us has had to endure with a family member of friend.

    Bottom line: it’s a very good comedy.

  • KayOkay

    I loved the movie, in part because I just spent two years taking a good friend to and from cancer treatments. In the end her cancer won and she died, at 45. 

    My friend and I talked about everything you can talk about in those gaping hours: driving (an hour and a half each way), awaiting blood test results, awaiting chemo chairs in our Canadian hospital, awaiting doctors, awaiting other test results, awaiting other treatments, and so on. Hours on end to talk for two years, after an already 30-year friendship of very, very much talking. 

    My friend did not engage in afterlife or god/non-god talk. I asked her if she wanted to talk about these things, as I did with other topics she was not bothering with. Her answer was, “No. I just don’t believe in anything.” It was simple. She was putting all her energy into trying to survive and live this life, not into debating or declaring her belief system about the supernatural. 

    Her background in the belief arena was lapsed Catholic. (Lapsed since early adulthood.) She did not return to the church during her illness. She did not ask for last rites, and entered the hospice as a non-believer. (I noted this in particular because my grandmother had told me growing up—and she declaring my non-belief a temporary rebellion—that everyone returns to god when they know they are dying. Grandma was not right about this.)  

    I was of course not the only person she spoke with. There were two others as close. We seemed to serve her needs amongst us. She and I had the most laughs together. We sought joy in every corner it could be found, including laughing at painful uncomfortable sometimes humiliating symptoms and flirting with hospital workers. 

    Carer #2 is a sentimentalist and together then cried and mourned the potential and then finally impending loss. They did not talk god/non-god or afterlife either. They only spoke about losing her in this life decades before expectation. At times, my friend told me to take some scheduled dates away from carer #2 as she was not up to  comforting carer #2’s loss of herself! “If I have to hear this week about how the world would miss me, I’m going to scream!” 

    Carer #3 is a scientist and together they analysed every bit of information they could get their hot little hands on about the cancer, about the body, about research being done in the field, about the drugs and the treatments. My friend was also a scientist and needed this outlet too. She never let up seeking information. 

    I know she didn’t debate or discuss the supernatural with either other carer because we talked about it after her death, among other things. That was when we realized that the three of us were serving distinct needs. 

    An interesting note: many, many people sent my friend religious wishes throughout her illness, both in hand-written cards and e-mail. And holy shit the e-mails! For prayer groups and such, just (IMO) a seemingly endless number of people praying for her to get better and endorsing prayer and belief in god as her way out of this mess. I asked her about it a few times when I saw her Inbox. She laughed! She said she didn’t read all of the text of the missives like that, just caught the gist and noted who it was from, because (in her wisdom in this instance IMHO), they meant that whoever was sending them cared about her and that was “the way they were taught how to send their love, and how they were taught to do something about ugly things like cancer”. And that was it. She appreciated knowing they were thinking about her. 

    And that was it. For my buddy, and for me if a time comes like that to my life, there was no energy or time for debate or discussion of something she settled in her mind long before the illness. 

  • Anonymous

    I really liked the movie and LOVED that the characters didn’t bring up “god” or an afterlife. I was pretty squirmy during the movie because I hate seeing people sick. Cancer is something I really fear and it was just tough watching someone go through that. =/

  • Coyote Grant

    This is actually an “remake” of sorts of an Italian film I saw a few years back called “One for Two”.  Neither film is really sterling, but they’re respectable watches all the same.

  • Anonymous

    The “agenda” of the film, in the words of its screenwriter, Will Reiser (whose experiences informed the film) is one I support:
    “I think that movie allows people the freedom to have a discussion about [cancer]… My hope is that the movie gives people an opportunity to talk about it in a way that doesn’t feel taboo.”

    I don’t think it lived up to its potential, and the lack of any reference whatsoever to the notion so many Americans have about death had something to do with this, in my view.

    The interview I quoted:

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this comment. It was a very moving story.

    Maybe I’m narrowly focused, but among the great things you’ve mentioned here, the statement “No, I just don’t believe in anything,” and her kind insistence that the e-mailing well-wishers are expressing love how they know best makes me feel like I know something of the kind of person she was, more than I did about the semi-fictional protagonist of 50/50. I wrote that if Levitt’s character had said something to that effect it would be a “distinguishing character trait,” and I do still think so. And how would he have reacted to all of the Facebook posts he would be getting making reference to a higher power? It needn’t have been central to the film (and your point that such questions were not important to your friend is well-taken), but these sorts of things would have made him more real, I think.

    I am curious about what you liked about the film. My only experience with cancer was when my grandfather died of it when I was 12. It was consensus among my Christian family that he would be in heaven when he died, and I was largely shielded from the realities of what he was going through physically. Your experience certainly sounds closer to what the film was trying to portray. What were some of the things they got right that I didn’t pick up on?

  • Anonymous

    Check the byline again. I wrote it, not Hemant. 

  • Ronlawhouston

    Actually since it’s loosely based upon a real person it would be interesting to know how he feels about an afterlife.  I’d suspect they based it upon his situation.

  • SphericalBunny

    This post makes me feel very English – I may or may not bother watching the film, but I’m a little taken aback at the need to inject everything with religion/non. Secularism FTW?

  • Dmacabre

    Where did anyone say that there was no evidence of a financial incentive?  I think you are confused.  Saying that they did not make any money is not the same as saying that they did not want to make any money.

  • The film had bigger problem than that, in my view.

  • Nena

    My daughter and I saw this movie together and we really enjoyed it. During our discussion of the movie afterward, we noted that there was no mention of religion or afterlife or anything related, and we both found that refreshing. Death and dying doesn’t have to revolve around whether one believes in gods or not. 

    I can understand wanting a deeper understanding of the character’s worldview, but we liked the fact that it was focused more on what he wanted to do while still living and how he was dealing with the struggle to stay alive.

  • greg

    Based on the experience of screenwriter Will Reiser. Its not just based on him, he wrote it. (His good friend Seth Rogen is essentially playing himself)

  • Anonymous

    While I agree with you that the film showed some misogyny in the way Howard’s character was treated, and the way the Rogen talked and acted throughout, I depart with you in thinking that Kendrick is a MPDG. She is poorly drawn, yes, but all of the characters are. Her caring for Levitt is, for much of the film, awkward and weirdly professional. She fell for him by the end because the mechanics of the script demanded that it be so, and did so in what seemed to be a much more dignified way than a Zooey Deschanel character would. 

    Maybe I’m biased because I like Anna Kendrick so much. She’s one of my favorite actresses, and, of all the cast, I thought she did the best job of fleshing the character out beyond what was on the page.

  • Jaylolo1012


    Wonderful article! I thought this movie was good and I didn’t
    intend on watching this movie in the beginning. My coworker from DISH insisted
    that I check it out I wouldn’t regret it. I added this to my queue with my
    Blockbuster @ Home feature. I think it was an awesome performance and I enjoy
    being able to view thousands of movies, games and TV shows. Having no late fees
    or due dates let’s me enjoy my games longer. The DVD’s by mail to my door is a
    bonus which will eliminate traffic time. While I wait for my next DVD I can
    still stream to my TV or iPad. Getting quick swap outs is a breeze, at the
    local store as many times as needed.

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