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.