There's nothing lovely about a young person dying of cancer—it's an ugly, cruel, humbling thing to witness. Yet Hollywood never tires of beautiful, valiant souls tragically wasting away from the disease: Kate Winslet in Finding Neverland (2004), Campbell Scott in Dying Young (1991), Deborah Winger in Terms of Endearment (1983), Ali MacGraw in Love Story (1970), all the way back to Bette Davis in Dark Victory (1939). Even before that, we had Camille (1936), with Greta Garbo glamorously succumbing to tuberculosis, and seven silent versions of the same story, taken from a novel by Alexander Dumas. Dying young—you'll pardon the joke—never gets old. In fact, this weekend you can take your pick of two new movies about cancer-ridden young people. The choice shouldn't be too difficult, because one of them, 50/50, is quite good and the other one, Restless, is downright awful.
When I first saw 50/50, I didn't know that the screenwriter, Will Reiser, had drawn on his own experience of being treated for a spinal tumor. But in retrospect this makes perfect sense: who else but a cancer survivor would have the audacity to turn his ordeal into a comedy—and not a gentle, philosophical comedy either, but something sarcastic, irreverent, and gag-friendly? 50/50 proves that real humor always has a point of view; Reiser manages to find laughs in a grim situation only because his perspective is so credible. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a sound editor at Seattle Public Radio, is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and given a 50 percent chance of survival. His girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), serenely promises she'll be "there for him," but then the movie crash-cuts to Adam's goofball friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), reacting to the news: "I'm gonna throw up!" Kyle tries to encourage Adam, but he isn't much help: "Fifty-fifty—if you were a casino game, you'd have the best odds!"
Reiser, a former producer for Da Ali G Show, is sharp enough to understand that, while there's nothing remotely funny about cancer, people's violent reactions to it can generate real laughs. Adam invites his mother and father over to his apartment so he can break the news to them; after he blurts out the truth, his mother (Anjelica Huston) takes a moment to process the information and then announces, "I'm moving in!" (Adam dissuades her.) Kyle, whose loyalty far exceeds his emotional intelligence, tries to cheer up his friend by throwing him a get-well party at work, which turns out to be a series of awkward moments. Their boss, who barely gave Adam the time of day in a previous scene, tipsily embraces him, lays his head on Adam's shoulder, and declares, "I'm gonna miss you so much!" Through it all, Gordon-Levitt—who honed his comedy chops as a teenage actor on Roseanne and 3rd Rock From the Sun—maintains a hilariously stoic deadpan.
Though Reiser develops several of Adam's relationships—with his girlfriend, his mother, his young therapist (Anna Kendrick), and two old cancer patients he meets during chemotherapy (Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall)—the most interesting of them turns out to be his friendship with Kyle. A raging id, Kyle helps himself to Adam's medical marijuana, and when they visit a bookstore in search of self-help paperbacks, he exploits the pity factor of Adam's condition to score a date with one of the sales clerks. Adam has never even driven a car, and the night before a dangerous surgery, when he decides he wants to take a spin in Kyle's jeep, Kyle is incredulous. "That's your Make-a-Wish?" he demands. "You should be having sex with hookers while skydiving right now!" Yet for all his attempts to capitalize on Adam's plight, Kyle is a true friend. (A spoiler follows.) That same night, after Kyle has passed out drunk in his bed, Adam goes into the bathroom and finds a dog-eared copy of a self-help book, Facing Cancer Together, that Kyle has been secretly studying and underlining.
Like many other comedies about serious matters, 50/50 grows more dramatic in its second half. What really impressed me, though, was how easily Reiser could pivot back to comedy at a moment's notice without seeming cheap. That's because the story, at its core, seems so true to life that you're never inclined to second-guess the action. By contrast, Jason Lew's screenplay for Restless is so phony, so unlived, that neither the comic nor the dramatic moments have any impact. Lew originally wrote the story as a play, Of Winter and Water Birds, which caught the attention of Bryce Dallas Howard, his classmate at New York University. The daughter of director Ron Howard (and, coincidentally, a cast member in 50/50), she urged Lew to write a screen adaptation and produced the film for her father's company, Imagine Entertainment. Somehow they persuaded Gus Van Sant to direct, and the finished product is a mighty comedown from his last project, Milk.
I don't know anything about Lew, and though he may well have some personal experience with cancer—who doesn't?—Restless plays like a morbid teenager's romantic poetry. Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper, stars as Enoch Brae, a gloomy kid whose parents have died in a car crash and who amuses himself by crashing the memorial services of strangers. At one of these events he meets whimsical Annabel Cotton, a kindred spirit who suffers from a brain tumor and has only three months to live; she's played by Mia Wasikowska, ending a winning streak that included Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right, and Jane Eyre. These two rascals are constantly dressing up in vintage outfits, clasping hands, and gaily running off somewhere, to the consternation of their elders. One of their early meetings takes place in a graveyard, where Enoch asks Annabel if she wants to meet his parents and then leads her over to their headstone. Captivated, she carries on a conversation with them, answering their imagined questions.
As you might guess, Restless is too precious for words. When Enoch isn't larking about with Annabel, he's playing the old board game Battleship with his invisible pal, Hiroshi, the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. Annabel, for her part, fancies herself a naturalist, idolizes Charles Darwin, and rhapsodizes over an insect that feeds its children with the remains of other bugs. Never for an instant did I believe this young girl was grappling with an early and unfair death; riding home from a doctor's appointment after a grim prognosis, she brightly tells her older sister, "Geologically, our lives are just a speck on the time line." Her traumatized sister (Schuyler Fisk), providing a rare but welcome moment of authentic human feeling, cuts her off: "Can we just not?" The movie is chock-full of flaky, overconceived moments: when Enoch finally consents to tell Annabel the story of his parents' death, they lie down together on a pavement and Enoch traces their bodies in chalk as if they were victims at a crime scene.
Given this sort of malarkey, it's no surprise when Restless disintegrates into the worst sort of soap opera. As Annabel's condition deteriorates, Enoch barges into her doctor's office and causes a scene, demanding, "Make her better!" The car crash that killed his parents also left Enoch in a coma for three months, and he's full of recrimination toward his aunt (Jane Adams) for having buried his mother and father while he was unconscious; "I never got to say goodbye!" he exclaims. Finally Enoch marches out to the graveyard with a sledgehammer and begins pounding away at his parents' headstone. "You think you can just leave me here?" he cries out. At this point his ghostly pal materializes to point out, "You have no respect for the dead." Neither does Restless—like its winsome protagonist, it's an uninvited guest at a stranger's funeral, grooving on grief at a comfortable distance.