When I was in high school I read every book that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote, even the essay collections which featured redundant anecdotes and observations. It’s not unusual for a kid at that age to like Vonnegut – after all, he writes so conversationally that he’s easy to read, he uses swear words, and some of his books even had crude drawings of buttholes – but I wasn’t obsessed with him because he talked about taboo subjects. I was interested in Vonnegut because he articulated a worldview that I was forming then and which I still live by now, which is somehow both cynical and warm at the same time. Perhaps the shortest way to sum it up is by his most frequently repeated maxim: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind. That one sentence is basically the root of my entire philosophy.
It's no wonder, then, that I love 50 / 50 so much, because it is above all other things a kind movie. It’s about a man named Adam who discovers in his mid twenties that he has a potentially fatal form of spinal cancer, and it’s about his life as he tries to deal with this massive threat to his mortality. There is a lot of humor in the film, much of which is provided by Adam’s best friend Kyle, played by Seth Rogen with his characteristic affability. There’s also a lot of sadness, because he might die so young through no fault of his own at all. But mostly, there’s kindness.
Perhaps the most powerful example of that kindness is in the scene where Adam’s mom meets his psychiatrist for the first time. The whole movie he’s been hesitant to deal with his mom who is so overbearing that she stresses him out, and he’s definitely complained to his psychiatrist that his mom’s efforts to help have actually made him feel worse. When he’s in surgery to have the cancer cut out of his back, everyone is waiting nervously in the waiting room, and the psychiatrist overhears his mom talking to Kyle and pieces together that she’s sitting next to these people she’s head so much about. She introduces herself, and the first thing the mom says is: “I want you to know: if I smothered him it was because I loved him.” It’s such an openly neurotic thing to say as a greeting that it provokes a big laugh – but you can also see that it’s true and that she does love him. In the beginning the mom feels like an obstacle, but by the end she’s a human being. More than that: she’s a human being who is trying her best to be kind.
Here’s another example that’s a little bit more complicated: right after Adam is diagnosed he tells his girlfriend that he’ll understand if she can’t stand by him. He knows that it’s asking a lot of someone to put them through a long medical trauma. She promises to help him, and she even drives him to chemo a few times. But later she does prove to be unable to the task, and when he calls her on it, she tells this dying man that he has no idea how hard all of this has been for her. It’s a painful scene to watch, and her clueless response makes his anger completely understandable. But even if he can’t forgive her trespasses, the audience can at least put them into context. He had no choice but to ask a lot of her, but he was asking a lot, and we remember his offer to her. She’s the least sympathetic character in the movie, but even she did try her best to be good to Adam, even if her best wasn’t good enough.
A lot of people were probably put off on the idea of seeing 50/50 because it seems like it would be too heavy – and in many ways it is a heavy movie. But I would much rather see a heavy movie that leaves you with a sense of warmth than one that leaves you with a sense of anger or resignation. There’s no one to blame here; or if there is blame it’s at least blame with an asterisk next to it. And that means a lot to me. I don’t believe that we’re ever going to live in a world where time travel is possible or where aliens will kidnap earthlings and put them in galactic zoos, but I have to believe that we live in a world where people can be kind, god damn it. 50/50 leaves me with that hope, and god bless it for that.