Attempting to make a movie that is both raucously funny and emotionally devastating is like trying to hit a target with an arrow from a mile away. You can either be so irreverent that the drama feels forced, or the drama can be so effective that it bums the audience out too much for them to laugh. So many movies have tried to walk this tightrope before, and very few have succeeded the way Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 succeeds. This film had me laughing until my sides hurt and actually had me, a jaded film critic, wiping away tears near the end. 50/50 is nearly 100% satisfying.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young man working for NPR. He is interested in creating perfect radio stories and trying to keep things interesting with his longterm girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), while his co-worker and best friend (Seth Rogen) seems to be more interested in getting laid. Suddenly, when Adam goes into the doctor about some back pain he’d been having, he finds out he has a very serious type of cancer, and he needs to start chemotherapy immediately. This sends him into a state of shock, and he tells his friend, girlfriend, and mom (Anjelica Huston) not to panic. Adam goes through a series of changes as he sees a young therapist (Anna Kendrick) and befriends two older gentlemen at the chemo sessions (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer). All the while, the reality continues to set in: his odds of dying young are very strong.
Words can’t describe how perfectly writer Will Reiser, director Jonathan Levine, and the actors nail the tone here. I was admittedly very skeptical on how this would work, especially so shortly after Funny People, a film with similar subject matter and Seth Rogen as the co-star, fumbled when it came to the emotional side of illness. Turns out this film, which deals more with the process of being sick than discovering how to live again after being sick, is nothing like Funny People at all. It can go straight from hilarious scene to affecting scene to a scene that somehow manages both. There are plenty of one-liners, yet there’s also plenty of truth. It’s enormously difficult to jerk the audience from one mode to another like this, but the feeling achieved when it’s done well is pretty damn close to bliss.
There is one subplot that keeps this film from being perfect: Bryce Dallas Howard’s girlfriend character, since it is far more one-note than a film like this deserves. She’s established as being a “bitch” by the best friend because she hasn’t slept with Adam in a long time, and from there forward, we know that Adam’s relationship with her won’t last because he can do better. In particular, the circumstances surrounding her inevitable departure takes the film into a scene or two of woman-bashing that made me slightly uncomfortable. The script of this film has so much heart and humor and complexity that it’s a shame that such a key character acts like a one-note “bitch.”
Yet everything else about the film is executed wonderfully. The scenes with the mother could have easily become interactions with a one-note shrill harpy like we see so often in these films, but Huston is fantastic and her scenes with Gordon-Levitt are quite affecting. Kendrick is an intelligent actress who handles awkwardness with an unforced grace, and your heart goes out to her the second she appears. Baker Hall and Frewer are hysterical, again taking what could have been a stereotype and delivering the depth necessary to make the roles memorable. Gordon-Levitt is great at these sort of hip-young-man roles, because his physicality and squinty eyes hold worlds of life within them.
The real glue of the film is Seth Rogen, who it seems has played this role a million times yet here feels fresh. In movies like Funny People and Knocked Up, he plays selfish immature young men who try to find a heart, but here, his selfish immature young man has evident heart all along. It turns out this story is autobiographical for the screenwriter, whose best friend at the time was in fact Seth Rogen, so it’s no wonder the character is perfectly sculpted to fit his personality. The friendship between Gordon-Levitt and Rogen makes up the majority of the film’s laughs and most poignant moments– a buddy cancer movie. The repor between everyone in the cast is excellent, the laughs are plentiful, and the tears are cathartic. Pretty odd that a film about a deadly disease can make you feel so good.