A movie like 50/50 is a difficult high wire act. A comedy/drama/romance centered on a healthy 27 year old man named Adam(Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who sees his normal life thrown into upheaval after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Cheery, eh? How do you make a movie about a possibly fatal illness something to be laughed at? By keeping the tone as upbeat as possible, and only delving into the darker emotional corners when it serves the story. 50/50 will pull at your heart strings, but never manipulates your emotions.
Director Jonathan Levine is no stranger to tackling offbeat subject matter. His debut for a lot of people was The Wackness, a combination love letter to the 1990s and drug fueled coming-of-age story. Previous to that was his inspired horror All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, in which a high school beauty is pursued aggressively by her peers. It can said that Levine has struggled in some ways to find a tonal balance in both of these movies, but 50/50 is a unique challenge. Make it too funny, and you risk alienating the audience during the most poignant moments. Too weepy, and nobody’s going to buy into the humor. 50/50 is a nearly perfect blend of the salty and the sweet.
A constant aching in his back is what sends Adam to the doctor for the first time. He’s a healthy guy, who seemingly does all the right things. He eats healthy, he jogs regularly, and he even looks both ways before crossing the street. So he’s understandably shocked when the doctor comes back with the dire news. Given a 50% chance at survival, he turns to those to him for what he thinks he needs, which is emotional support. His girlfriend(Bryce Dallas Howard) puts up a decent front but can’t handle taking care of anybody. Adam’s mother(Anjelica Huston) does what any mother would do, which is smother him. But it’s his best buddy, Kyle(Seth Rogen), who becomes his real stabilizing influence, shaving Adam’s head, driving him to treatments, and using his buddy’s cancer as a way to pick up chicks. What else are friends for?
In fact it’s Rogen’s character who will probably be the most polarizing, the one who occasionally sends the film careening from affecting drama to frat boy buddy comedy. Most of the time it works, and their relationship feels authentic. Other times you’ll find yourself wondering if it’s really so cool to use a possibly terminal disease to get laid. The answer lies in how it’s portrayed, and writer Will Reiser, who based the story on his own experiences, presents their misadventures with enough silliness to not take it too seriously. Plus Kyle does it with the best of intentions, to bolster his friend’s confidence.
Adam finds some much needed assistance in his fight from a cute, painfully serious therapist feeling her way through her first major case. Their initial meetings are awkward, but it develops into something considerably more. Yes, there’s a touch of rom-com here as well. After sortof drifting through the initial stages of the disease, Adam gets a harsh lesson as to his possible future after making friends with a pair of weed smoking cancer patients(the excellent Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an actor who has been hovering around a Best Actor nomination for a few years now. 50/50 might just be his most confident performance yet, portraying a guy who is clearly fighting back anger at how his world is changing, while at the same time putting on a brave face for those closest to him. Rogen is actually really good here as well, not just playing the clown for once. Anna Kendrick is as charming and likable as ever, even if buying into her as anybody’s therapist at her age requires a touch of mental gymnastics.
As with any film dealing with illness, there’s a message to be found about enjoying life, focusing on the people and things that make one’s existence worth it. It’s a lesson worth learning, and easier to take to heart when delivered with a smile.