The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Cancer with a smile

with 33 comments

On May 11 2001 my father died from cancer, exactly four months before 9/11. Those two events are tied together in my mind. For most of my life my father was Superman. He was like an encyclopedia on two legs. He appeared to have everything under control until the cancer came and it turned out that he didn’t. Besides he worked in a field that was related to fighting terrorists and illegal weapons.  I couldn’t let go of the weird idea that if he only had been alive, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened. Or if it happened, he would have explained it, like he explained the periodical system or the concept of more than three dimensions.

But he had no solution for cancer so he died and 9/11 happened and as little as I could prevent it could I understand it or accept it.

They say there’s this mourning process you need to get through when someone dies but after ten years mine hasn’t even started. There is a locked door to my emotions that I reckon I should open but I can’t bring myself to do it. I tell myself that one day I will, only not today. Tomorrow maybe. When I’m strong and mature enough. I push it forward, one day at a time.

And I’m telling you all of this just to make you understand why I watch every movie about people dying or almost dying in cancer or losing their parents in cancer that comes in my way.

Sometimes those films trigger me to cry a little bit, letting out a little bit of whatever is hidden behind that mental door I have. Sometimes they don’t.

The cancer humor
The last one I watched was 50/50 and it only made me cry properly once (a scene between the guy with the cancer disease and his mother, which really messed me up.) On the other hand I laughed or at least giggled quite a bit. For how weird as it sounds, this story about a young man who all of a sudden gets a severe form of cancer with 50 percents chance of survival is more of a lighthearted romantic comedy than it is a gripping close-to-death drama.

It’s actually not all that strange. Cancer is dark and scary and horrible, yes, of course it is, but it also puts you in situations you hadn’t imagined, makes you do things you never thought you would do and you can’t but smile at it in all its absurdity. This disease gives you a quite twisted sense of humor, which I think 50/50 reflects very well.

There are for instance some funny scenes where the cancer patients eat marijuana cookies as a pain killer and this immediately tossed me eleven years back in time, thinking of my own experiences of this.

My parents used to live in Netherlands, where the view on such things is vastly different from in Sweden. When my father was in his terminal stage and there was nothing to do but to wait and try to keep the pain as low as possible, a nurse recommended us to bake him some cookies with marijuana. To her it was as natural as if she had recommended us to give him vitamins. It’s sold openly in coffee shops where anyone over 18 is allowed.

For me and my mother the thought of entering one of those shops was shocking. She could as well have told us to buy heroine by a drug dealer in a backyard. But again: cancer makes you do things you didn’t think you’d do. While my husband stayed outside with our kids, mom and I entered on trembling legs, cleared our throats and did our purchase. And then we went home and made cookies. I can still remember the nauseating smell. The stench filled the apartment. And my father didn’t like them particularly much so most of them ended up in the trash. But thinking about how lost we were in that coffee shop still makes me smile wryly.

What I thought
But I’m losing myself in memories here. Let’s head back to 50/50.  What did I make of it? Well, admittedly there were elements I didn’t like all that much. Did the girl friend need to be THAT shallow? Did the psychiatrist need to look like a young cheerleader? How believable was that? Did his friend have to be completely obsessed with getting chicks and getting laid? It got a bit tiresome. On the whole I liked it well enough, but it didn’t break into my top 10 list of 2011, which I kind of had expected it to do considering the topic. I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to love it. Perhaps I could have done with a few more cries.

My 17 year old daughter on the other hand was super enthusiastic, but from a slightly different perspective. She told me that she had watched it vanilla, so the whole thing about the cancer theme came as a complete surprise to her. All she knew, all she even cared about, was that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the leading actor in it, the same guy who had made her watch 500 Days of Summer at least four times, if not more.

“He’s so CUTE!” “Did you see his dimples?” “I want to watch this movie again. Three times is a minimum!” she exclaimed as we walked towards the car.

I gave her a hug and asked her if she’d push me away the way Joseph’s character did to his mother if she got cancer.

“No way!” she said, smiling at me. “I’d use it! You would get me ANYTHING, wouldn’t you?”

I nodded. Indeed I would. Anything.

50/50 (Jonathan Levine, US, 2011)  My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

January 31, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in 50/50

33 Responses

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  1. I watched 50/50 recently too, and was impressed. What struck me was that the film walked between humour and a serious tone very well. The characters were entertaining yet still plausible. My family has lost most of our “grand-parent” generation to cancer and a few of our parents as well, so we have a thin skin for junk-cancer material. i.e. as cool as Breaking Bad is, it seems to treat the cancer material in a 2 dimensional way – as a sub-plot, not a story.
    I think this film is watchable and effective, especially the way that the peripheral characters deal with their losses (if you re-watch look at the face of the “wife” in the outside/garden discussion of cancer, that actress does a very good job). 8.5/10 for me.


    January 31, 2012 at 1:25 am

    • I recently discovered Breaking Bad and I’m actually a fan. Maybe not so much because of the way cancer is related, but it’s got a sense of hmor I like and isn’t easily defined as a particular genre. A wonderful crossover of drama/crime/comedy. And my father was a chemist by training… I think he would have had a lot of fun with it, so it adds a little something for me personally.

      But yes, I liked 50/50. It does a fine balance act between humour and seriousness. Humour is pretty rare in connection with cancer. I


      January 31, 2012 at 7:50 am

  2. Thank you for marvellous reading and a great review. You made my Tuesday morning a bit brighter.

    Hollywood can´t ever be the real world, 50/50 is a proof of that, but if a movie like this gets people (young people) to see a movie that actually tells an IMPORTANT story than it serves a very good purpose.


    January 31, 2012 at 8:43 am

    • Thank you for a wonderful, kind comment. You made MY Tuesday morning a bit brighter.


      January 31, 2012 at 9:36 am

  3. Thank you for a personal and wonderful piece Jessica. I am so sorry for your loss.

    Scott Lawlor

    January 31, 2012 at 10:11 am

  4. Heya Jessica,

    A great writeup again – thanks for introducing me to another movie to add to my list of things to see.

    I’ve seen the trailers, and it looked funny, but it appeared to me that this movie was going to have a bit too light of at take on what is generally a serious topic. Maybe that was the whole reason for it – but it was a little off-putting, especially given what I’m used to seeing Seth Rogen in (The Green Hornet, Zach and Mirri Make a Porno, Superbad, and 40-year Old Virgin). I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so thanks again for the revue.

    I’ve had friends with cancer – one who’s in remission again after 5 relapses, and she’s only 33, and another, one of my best friends, who passed a year ago from brain cancer.

    It sounds, though, like it was handled well, and approaches the subject realistically, even if it’s more lighthearted than usual. I’m going to look forward to seeing this movie.

    My 2 yen,



    January 31, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    • Hey Akiosama and thanks!
      It IS a pretty light movie but I don’t see anything bad in doing a light movie about cancer. You need to be able to laugh at it and I think it could serve as a bit of a comfort movie. I think you’ll do well to put it on your too-see-list. Seth Rogen is ok. I also got a bit more positive about him when I read the background. Apparently the film is based on the experiences of the screenwriter, Will Reiser, and Seth Rogen is a friend of Reiser’s who helped him to cope with the disease.


      January 31, 2012 at 2:00 pm

  5. Hi there dear, Holly here.

    My mom had cancer while I was in college, I’m glad she survived. I personally dealt with it poorly by shutting down, and essentially cutting my family out of my life for a while. It’s an odd instinctive reaction I developed over the years of pain making me isolate myself.

    I sense if I got cancer, I’d do the same thing again, even when I would have no way to support myself while I was that way. Is it right? no. If my mom had died, would I have forgiven myself? probably not. Have I forgiven myself anyway? not really, but there’s not a lot to be angry at myself for other than not being there when she needed me.

    I can’t say why I reacted this way, but it’s the same reaction that made me deal with my rape alone, that makes me deal with my…..other problem alone. I often wonder if I’m broken when it comes to being able to help or get help from people.

    I haven’t seen, or heard of this movie till now, and I’ll honestly probably give it a pass simply due to content.

    • Hi my friend.

      Sometimes when computers get overheated they shut down in order to survive. And I think it’s the same with people. For some people talking is the way to go. For others shutting down can be the only option, at least as a temporary solution. I wouldn’t judge you on that.

      Not being able to ask for and recieve help, yeah. I know of that. At least you’re aware of it, so you can try to do something about it. But it takes a long time and a lot of effort to change a mindset.

      I understand if you pass on the movie, but I still want to point out that it’s not a particularly tough view. And it might even be helpful for you to access your emotions towards your mother.


      January 31, 2012 at 2:13 pm

  6. Thanks for sharing. Hope that worked as a bit of catharsis for you. And that’s kind of what I thought 50/50 – which I liked but certainly didn’t love – was about as much as the disease itself, that need for catharsis when faced with something so indescribable.


    January 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    • Thanks Nick. It was a little bit cleansing, but not quite as much as Beginners was. That movie had me crying a lot. My father died without me ever getting to know him, without me ever getting close, and I think that had to do with it. Beginners related to this while 50/50 was quite a different situation. Still -it’s a good movie that I can recommend, not only to people who’ve been in touch with cancer, but to anyone.


      January 31, 2012 at 6:05 pm

  7. Beautiful post, Jessica. My mother was diagnosed with cancer over a decade ago now (time flies…). Fortunately, she survived the treatment of it. I have very faint memories of what my reaction to it was at the time. My brain has blocked it out, even if I can remember other things that happened in that time period quite vividly. Cancer sucks, I know that much. I’m glad my mother made it, and I’m sorry for your loss.

    On the subject of cancer films, I would recommend Wit, by Mike Nichols. It’s about a professor in English literature (Emma Thompson) who gets diagnosed with cancer, and then follows her thrugh her treatment. It’s very insightful and introspective. Despite all the education and knowledge the main character has obtaiend over the years, she finds she cannot use any of it to battle the disease. And just like she could be cold and academic towards her students, she now finds herself treated the same way by the doctors who seem more interested in seeing how their new form of chemotherapy will work rather than her well-being. Powerful movie, and if you’re a cancer film completionist, it’s not one to miss out on.

    Thank you for the wonderful post.


    January 31, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    • Thank you Emil. I’m glad your mother made it through it. A lot do nowadays, fortunately. It’s a bit of a comfort when I think about my own chances of getting cancer. I’m afraid they’re probably increased because of the genetics.

      I didn’t know about that movie but I will certainly see if there’s any chance of finding it. Not only has it a great cast, Mike Nichols is also a good director. And the theme sounds powerful indeed. It reminds me a little bit of The Doctor from 1991, a movie with William Hurt as a very arrogant doctor who gets cancer. I watched it as it came out many years ago and long before I got my own experiences. But I remember it made quite an impression on me.


      January 31, 2012 at 7:48 pm

      • I might have to check out The Doctor. Sounds interesting. Thank you for the tip!


        January 31, 2012 at 8:14 pm

        • It’s been a while since I watched it so I don’t know how it’s held up. But I remember it as very good. And I’ve always had a good eye to William Hurt.


          January 31, 2012 at 8:19 pm

  8. I was reluctant to see this because it was a cancer film and my grandmother had passed away last August due to cancer. I was afraid it would delve into that heavy sentimentality and I couldn’t handle that. Fortunately, it wasn’t like that as I found myself being entertained by it while be amazed at how real it felt. It’s a better film than people say it is and I think should be seen more. Excellent review as usual.

    Steven Flores

    January 31, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    • I didn’t know there was a dislike for it. That’s a shame. It deserves better. It wasn’t a 5/5 to me because I think I needed a little bit more of seriousness perhaps… but yet – it’s a good take on cancer, that’s for sure.


      January 31, 2012 at 10:03 pm

  9. Another great review. I agree that the psychiatrist was a bit young and probably wouldn’t be allowed to do that by herself in real life, but it didn’t bother me much. Joseph Gordon Levitt though was amazing and the moment in the hospital with his parents almost had me wiping a tear away, that really was an amazin performance by him.


    February 1, 2012 at 8:41 am

    • Yes, that scene really gripped me. It wasn’t almost to me. I had a good cry.


      February 1, 2012 at 10:24 am

  10. “Did the girl friend need to be THAT shallow? Did the psychiatrist need to look like a young cheerleader? How believable was that? Did his friend have to be completely obsessed with getting chicks and getting laid? ”

    And that’s how you see that it’s an American movie. The minute I saw the psychiatrist you know they’re gonna be a couple at the end of the movie. It didn’t bother me that much however and I found his friend to be very funny. Sure, it’s a great way to get laid but how interested are you in sex if you found out that you’re dieing?

    I suppose we all get emotional when things get to a personnel level. Noone in my family has had cancer so it doesn’t bother me as much. I’ve seen Eastern Promises last week by Cronenberg and that movie made me teary-eyed as it touched a personnel subject. Great movie too, well advised.

    Still, it’s a good movie which gave me more than a few laughs.


    February 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    • Oh yes, it was definitely funny. I guess I just crave for my crying opportunities as well and I only got one in this movie and that’s why it didn’t reach the level of for instance Beginners. What makes you cry is so individual. Sometimes I learn about people crying at stuff that didn’t affect me that much and sometimes it’s just the opposite. We all have our lagguage that movies resonate to.


      February 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm

  11. Great review. I am sorry to hear about your loss. I really enjoyed this films humour and drama and it did almost make me cry. It is tragic and comic.
    Nice blog you got here by the way, I’ll follow :). Be sure to stop by mine


    February 2, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    • Thank you Thomas and welcome to the film blogosphere! I notice your blog is fairly new. I hope you’ll stick to it. It’s a lot of fun!


      February 2, 2012 at 10:24 pm

  12. Sorry to hear about your loss Jessica. Glad you enjoyed the movie though. Like you I did feel it was somewhat lacking in some area such as Bryce Dallas Howard’s and Seth Rogen’s character. But the rawness and honesty of the screenplay really was refreshing. I look forward to seeing it a second time.


    February 3, 2012 at 5:32 am

    • Yes, I can very well end up seeing it again. Considering the enthusiasm of my daughter I expect her to rent it and I’ll surely tag along then if possible.


      February 3, 2012 at 7:38 am

  13. I’m a bit behind in my reading, but I wanted to leave a quick note.

    Things of true beauty should be cherished. The writing in this blog post is one of those things of true beauty. I haven’t even seen the movie and you brought a tear to my eye. Keep up the good work.

    Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    February 6, 2012 at 7:51 am

    • Thank you Brian. You know, quick notes like this keep me going.


      February 6, 2012 at 7:59 am

  14. […] better add that for the little issue I had I really liked 50/50 quite a bit and the screenwriter Will Reiser, who based this script on his own experiences from a cancer […]

  15. […] Jag tänkte inte ge karln en tredje chans. Men så läste jag om filmen hos Movies-noir, Velvet cafe och Fiffi, alla var  positivt inställda till filmen. Vanligtvis brukar jag se filmer som folk […]

  16. It’s funny you bring this move up, right as I’m finishing up my research on the healing powers of laughter. I watched it with a family member who found it funny, while I struggled to do so, and found it painful. But I know, after looking into it, that laughter and appreciating humor will do more for us than all the tears in the world–keep us health, fight pain, improve quality of life–even increase longevity (if you don’t believe it can do all that, stop by at Meanwhile, I’m glad for your own well-being that you’re still able to find joy and laughter, despite the painful experiences you’ve been through. Hopefully that will serve you well throughout whatever life may throw you. All the best, Candida

    Candida Abrahamson PhD

    March 5, 2012 at 6:22 am

  17. […] Jess over at Velvet Cafe had a few issues with it: “What did I make of it? Well, admittedly there were elements I didn’t like all that much. Di… […]

  18. […] 50/50 – probably the funniest cancer movie I’ve seen. […]

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