dir. Jonathan Levine
Release Date: Sep 30, 11
Let’s just address the elephant in the room upfront: Yes, 50/50 is a comedy about spinal cancer, that includes Seth Rogen playing another riff on his affable, addled everyman. Now that this has been put aside, we can instead focus on the fact that it’s one of the most endearing films of the year, impeccably acted across the board and possessed with the resolve to not allow treacle where it isn’t welcome.
A great deal of credit for the unsentimentality belongs to writer Will Reiser, who wrote 50/50 about his real-life battle with cancer. This isn’t just a film about Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) going through chemo and its associated struggles, it’s also about how those in his immediate sphere react. It’s hard enough telling loved ones (Adam: “You know…Terms of Endearment?”) without his mother (Anjelica Huston) attempting to take over his life or his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) coming along mainly out of a sense of obligation. Adam’s best bet is Kyle (Rogen), whose occasional disregard for tact is offset by a fierce loyalty to his friend, and who discovers that if laughter isn’t the best medicine, then sex totally is.
This is the kind of comic territory that 50/50 inhabits. Despite drawing a lot of comparisons to 2009’s Funny People because of the subject matter and Rogen’s involvement, 50/50 actually feels more like a Judd Apatow film than that one did. There’s something inspiring about the way in which the film trivializes cancer to a series of pop cultural references not for the sake of flippant dismissal, but instead to nail the way in which a healthy 27-year-old would potentially deal with the inexplicable arrival of a disease he can barely pronounce. (As one of his friends in chemotherapy puts it, “The more syllables there are, the worse it is.”)
Gordon-Levitt and Rogen both put in excellent performances, but the major nod really belongs to Anna Kendrick as Adam’s psychologist. Assigned to him by the hospital, she starts off ill-prepared to contend with a bitter, evasive peer, but soon begins to forge a genuine connection with Adam. The tentative gentleness she brings to every scene balances out the often bawdy comedy in play, and when Adam finally opens up to her in a late-night phone call, the shift in her manner is subtle and heartbreaking.
For as easy as it is to extoll 50/50‘s nuances, that’s underselling just how uproariously funny the film is. Will and Kyle take full advantage of the miracle of medical marijuana, leading to one of the better executions of stoner comedy in recent memory, and the two volley one-liners at a stunning pace. Reiser’s screenplay doesn’t contain a false moment, and therein lies the beauty of 50/50: Only somebody who’s been there could tell a story this honest, funny and real.