Young Adult Cancer Gets Its Hollywood Closeup: My Review of the Film 50/50

Having supported and promoted nearly a dozen advanced screenings of this film, and hearing scores of personal reviews from within our community, I went in with as clear and objective a conscience as possible.

As a young adult cancer survivor and national young adult cancer patient advocate, dozens of scrutinizing questions ran through my head as the opening credits rolled.

Would it be accurate? Would it have the right message? Would it be believable Did it become "Hollywood-ized" over the course of it's gestation?

And most importantly, would the film live up to the expectation I had for it -- to embody what the young adult cancer movement was all about: being your own empowered and irreverent self-advocate and not taking any shit from anyone while struggling to laugh, find joy and make sense of our own seemingly invincible and invulnerable mortality.

The answer is yes to all of these questions.


He lives. OK? He lives. Let's get that right out of the gate. But it's not the destination, it's the journey as you will learn all too well.

Right off the bat, this is a magnificent film that will speak very differently and very individually to anyone who sees it. It has more of an indie flick feel to it than anything else. The initial vibe is sort of Eternal Sunshine meets Punch Drunk Love meets Superbad meets House.

Now, I'm no film critic so any attempt I make to discuss the cinematography, lighting, camera angles, etc ... would be pointless. But, from a layperson moviegoer's vantage, it seemed very well done with a high production value.

50/50 is based on the true story of Will Reiser, a young Hollywood screenwriter who was diagnosed out of the blue with spinal sarcoma. In the film, Will's character is Adam, played by Inception star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Adam is an archetype young adult cancer patient: isolated, disenfranchised, talked-down-to and grossly underserved. The portrayal of his "fish-out-of-water" experience will hit home with nearly everyone who's been there and done that.

A couple of lines in the film caught me off guard by how pitch perfectly positioned they were nestled into the plot. One of them involves the moment when Adam discloses to his mother that he was sick. (And hats off to Anjelica Huston for playing the not-over-the-top Jewish mother. It was the perfect balance of inner strength and emotional devastation.)

"Mom," he pauses. "Did you ever see< em>Terms of Endearment?"

Of the top ten ways how not to tell your mom you have cancer, this is #1.

Terms of Endearment, which swept the 1984 Oscars with awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture, is a film I use in my speeches as a euphemism for how "not" to portray cancer on the silver screen. Deborah Winger's character Emma, dies from cancer in the most heart-wrenchingly stomach-churning, "dying-pets-infomercial" way possible.

Adam's question to his mom is a sardonic nod to the past where perception is still just that -- perception. Cancer was not necessarily a death sentence though Adam did have an extremely rare spinal sarcoma. After consulting with an apathetic, pencil-pushing, non-eye-contact-making douche of an oncologist (someone who I know many of us can relate to), he read a similarly austere and unemotional WebMD page that gave him a 50% survival rate for five years.

Another moment that tore my heart out was when Adam's parents bid him an emotional goodbye in the hospital as he was wheeled into the operating room. This page felt torn directly from my own personal life as I can vividly recall that very same moment as if it were yesterday. I broke down and cried through the entire scene and for several minutes afterward. It was serenely powerful and surreally emblematic of how epically different it is for a young adult having to become dependent on their parents when they just want to live their lives.

I know this film is based on Will Reiser's real life experience but I smelled a little "Hollywood" in there. If I had to nitpick, I would cite three specific "issues" which prevented me from suspending disbelief if only just for a few moments.

First, Adam's father, had severe Alzheimer's disease. Was there a plot point to this? Was it to deepen the emotional role of the mother by having a spouse who could not listen and a son who chose not to listen? Does Will Reiser's actual father face this disease? If not, then I found his character unnecessary as it just contaminated the purity of the scenes in which Adam and his mother ultimately came together towards the end.

Second, the character of Katie, Adam's assigned pre-doctoral (unlicensed?) therapist played by Anna Kendrick, seemed a little forced. I could be wrong. After all, if in real life, Will went through treatment and came out on the other end dating his younger hottie therapist, then kudos to him for a happy ending. It was my impression that her role, beyond love interest, was to portray how two young people thrown into uncomfortable situations are able to gain comfort and strength through their own sense of courage, confidence and self-worth.

And finally, throughout the course of his aggressively toxic chemotherapy treatments, Adam does not appear to lose any weight. At no point did he give off the impression of being grossly fatigued, gaunt or wan. The makeup crew cue-balled him good but I guess I was expecting more realism in what I've seen chemo infusions actually do. Considering he didn't drive and took a bus to and from his treatments all by himself, one might ponder about neutropenia. Perhaps I'm picking at straws, trying to find something that isn't there.

True to form, the hospital is the most forgotten and overlooked character in the film. Stoic, emotionless, apathetic, restricting and alienating, it does not foster health and wellness. It manifests darkness, uncertainty and solitude at a time when we need light, hope, peer support and community. There was none.

Whether Will Reiser, Seth Rogen or director Jonathan Levine know the social impact that 50/50 will have on the young adult cancer movement is not irrelevant. It is my hope that they collectively realize what they have done is beyond just making another movie. This is about much more than ticket sales, recouping costs, posting a profile, pleasing shareholders and padding a portfolio.

In the end, you will cry. You will laugh and, hopefully, you will get many of the random 1980's movie references. What I can guarantee is that you will be made to feel egregiously uncomfortable by most of Seth Rogen's trademark and token inappropriateness, a la Pineapple Express and Knocked Up.

Seth is Will's best friend in real life so he is, essentially, portraying a version of himself in this film. I'm a Rogen fan but if any of my friends tried to use my brain cancer to get themselves laid, I'd have run them off a cliff.

Sorry, Seth. I actually am a huge fan.

You get props for having the balls to help make this film a real boy.

Mazel Tov!

Matthew Zachary is a 15-year young adult survivor of pediatric brain cancer, national young adult patient spokesperson and the Founder/CEO of the I'm Too Young For This! Cancer Foundation, online at