Saturday, December 17, 2011

How Would You React If You Were Told You Had a 50/50 Chance of Surviving to the Closing Credits?

Last night while I was watching the movie 50/50, I got to thinking about a lot of things. Surprisingly, for a hypochondriac like me, my imagined impending death wasn't one of them. But thank God, that intense lower back pain that hit me like a ton of bricks a couple of months ago is long gone -- and that it wasn't accompanied by night sweats!

In the film, 27-year-old radio station employee, teetotaler, certified health nut and all-around swell guy Adam Lerner (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, whose name should be popping up in every Oscar discussion, and probably would be, if this movie had been directed by David Fincher, Alexander Payne, or the Coen Brothers) finds out that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. After doing a bit of Internet research (unrecommended for sufferers of rare illnesses), he discovers that he has a 50/50 chance of surviving. But that isn't the point of the movie.

Well, it is the point, sort of. But the movie, and my thoughts, were more focused on how Adam and his loved ones dealt with his diagnosis. After all, 50/50 is billed as a comedy (you don't cast Seth Rogen as the best friend without the express intention of eliciting solid laughs), so there was never any doubt in my mind how things would turn out for him.

The first thing I got to thinking about was why Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't on Oscar's Best Actor radar. I know he's only 30, and Oscar generally likes his Best Actor candidates slightly older, but if he were Ryan Gosling, he'd be a shoo-in. The Golden Globe nomination is a nice touch, but the scene where Adam and his mom (Angelica Huston, looking and acting as divine as usual) embrace just before he's taken into surgery broke my heart. It's as good an Oscar clip as anything in Moneyball.

Oh, yes. That brings me to Angelica Huston. Where has she been all my life -- or at least for the last decade or so? She's an Oscar winner, dammit, and she deserves better than a guest-starring arc on Medium. Is there some law in Hollywood that says the only actresses over 60 who can regularly be cast in leading film roles are Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren? No, I didn't think so. I want to see a movie where Huston gets more than a few scenes, and 50/50, good as it is, would have benefited immensely from more Angelica Huston.

But the thing that really got to me while watching the movie was how Gordon-Levitt's character handled -- or rather, didn't handle -- his illness. He slipped into a state of denial that lasted for practically the entire movie.

I wondered how I would react if a disinterested and uninterested doctor gave me the same news (without once touching my back to check for lumps). I think I know myself well enough to know that I'd probably fall apart and look for sympathy wherever I can find it. But then again, confronting your own mortality has a way of bringing out sides of you that you didn't even know existed.

Before I was attacked and robbed in my home nearly five years ago, I never dreamt that I would have fought back against someone who broke into my home and threatened my life. But there I was, rolling around on the bathroom floor, fighting off three guys who didn't know that three against one just isn't fair.

And speaking of things that aren't fair, it took a long time, nearly the entire film, for Adam to finally react the way I imagine we all would to the hand that life had unjustly dealt him -- full of fire and fear. It's the kind of detailed characterization that should have him on every Oscar prognosticator's short list. But then, we all know how that naked golden boy thinks.

"Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?" Adam asked his mom just before revealing his diagnosis to her, in the film's most darkly humorous scene, and it drove home a crucial point: Death becomes Academy Award nominees. Oscar likes his young sick characters female and dead by time the final credits roll.

Which is probably a good thing for a hypochondriac like me. I can watch a movie like Terms of Endearment or Love Story or Steel Magnolias a hundred times and never once put myself in the dying heroine's shoes. But give me a guy with survival odds far worse than 50/50, and there's no telling where my mind would go.

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