A film review by Craig J. Koban October 5, 2011

Rank:  #23 

50/50 jjj

2011, R, 100 mins.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Adam / Seth Rogen: Kyle / Anna Kendrick: Katherine / Bryce Dallas Howard: Rachael / Anjelica Huston: Diane / Serge Houde: Richard / Philip Baker Hall: Alan / Matt Frewer: Mitch

Directed by Jonathan Levine / Written by Will Reiser

50/50 is a film that I was not expecting to like nearly as much as I did.  Perhaps my reticence to see it was due to the fact that cancer is so severely life altering and damaging that it’s not really something that’s altogether funny, nor does it immediately come to mind as a worthy subject matter for a comedy.  Seeing the ads for 50/50 I was reminded of 2007’s THE BUCKET LIST, a pitilessly artificial and hackneyed feel-good dramedy about men with cancer that I despised so much that I thought it should receive, as I wrote in my review, “the PATCH ADAMS Lifetime Achievement Award for ‘shamelessly contrived melodrama and falsely sentimentalized grandstanding.’”   

50/50 also has the very dubious task of being a “feel-good” motion picture comedy about decidedly non-feel-goody (if I can use that term) material.  What Jonathan Levine’s (THE WACKINESS) film does with a real compassion and observation is to deal with cancer tragically and amusingly: it treats the disease and its poor victim with dignity, respect, and sympathy.  The best way that people oftentimes deal with calamitous problems is with equal parts despair and laughter.   The prospect of dying and dying very young is not a joke, but 50/50 finds a sincere authenticity in its ailing main character and those around him, and it does so with a delicacy and understanding.  Completely unlike the horrendously false-footed THE BUCKET LIST, 50/50 deals with its material by being hilarious (but not in an inappropriate or off-putting manner) while being emotionally resonating and endearing (but not to the point of coming off as a one-note TV movie of the week tearjerker). 

The film’s sense of realism is chiefly attributed to the fact that its writer, Will Reiser (friend of 50/50’s co-star and producer, Seth Rogen) was diagnosed with a highly rare, but operable and survivable form of cancer when he was in his 20’s.  50/50 should in no way be considered a biographical account of Eisner’s hard fought battle with the disease, but the fact that he understands the disease in all of its subtleties and observable traits lends greatly to the film’s verisimilitude.  We’ve seen countless films before with people that have cancer, but 50/50 is unusually perceptive for how young people go through various stages of initial denial, eventually acceptance, paralyzing grief and despair, and sometimes – and oddly enough – serenity within themselves when afflicted.  There’s rarely a counterfeit dramatic moment in the film as a result.   

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an up-and-comer in the field of radio when he is given the worst news that anyone could possible be given by a doctor: he not only has cancer, but such a rare form of spinal cancer that chemotherapy most likely will not help and that surgery is a very likely a death sentence.  Like most people, Adam takes the news with equal parts incredulity and indifference, which perhaps is exacerbated by the manner his oncologist (Andrew Airlie) delivers the news as if he’s impatiently ordering food off of a fast food menu.  Part of the film’s macabre sense of humor is in moments like this, which also have a level of painful truth to them: how many of us have had doctors with such inordinately terrible communication skills or bad bedside manners? 



Of course, all of those dear to him react quite differently to the painful news: His BFF, Kyle (Seth Rogen), at first nearly vomits at the news (in a funny scene), but later he tries to take the situation and try to spin doctor it to make Adam chipper (“If you were a Las Vegas slot machine, you’d have the best odds!” he hilariously deadpans).  Adam’s work colleagues respond with either sadness, awkwardness, or in one instance, inappropriateness (“I’m gonna miss you,” his boss abnoxiously whispers).  His mother (a razor sharp and spot-on perfect Angelica Huston) responds as most mothers would: with panicking anxiety and an immediate, knee-jerk reaction to smother the child she could lose (she also has to deal simultaneously with her husband that suffers from near-crippling Alzheimer’s).  Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) swears to stand by him no matter what, but then selfishly cheats on him.  Finally, there is Adam’s very young and very attractive new therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) whose own troublesome inexperience at her job almost mirrors the uncertainty that Adam is going through while battling cancer. 

The one nitpick I do have with the script for 50/50 is how Howard’s girlfriend character is essentially written as a plot device to propel the narrative forward and give credence to a potential new romantic relationship between Adam and his cute new therapist.  I think that Howard, a lovely and assured actress, can’t quite pull off the unnerving and borderline despicable self-centeredness of her part.  Furthermore, it does not take a fortune-teller to see that Adam and Katherine – albeit rather slowly and inelegantly – will end up together, which maybe the only disingenuous element of an otherwise truthful film.  Yet, what makes the mechanical nature of this courtship work is Kendrick herself, who creates a real sweet vulnerability, youthful naivety, a noble minded tenderness, and a sense of unease of knowing whether she has what it takes to be a game-changer in her profession.  She creates a plausible woman that is torn between her professional duties and obligations to Adam and her own fretfulness about just how personal she should get with her new patient.  One thing is for sure: Kendrick is a radiant and infectious presence in the film. 

The film does work stupendously in terms of balancing merriment and misery.  Many laughs are to be had with Adam’s chemo sessions with some old codgers (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who introduce the young man to weed, albeit in desert form, as a way to curb his depression and symptoms.  Then there are hilarious moments that shows Kyle’s advice on how to deal with the disease: in short, use it as a way to score with chicks, because sympathy from them will get Adam laid (which, after some initial stumbling blocks, does work).  There is also a very amusing moment when Adam asks for Kyle’s assistance with shaving his head, a proactive move seeing as he will lose his hair to chemo.  Adam rightfully asks Kyle what he uses his clippers for, which concludes with a predictably off color and funny response from Kyle.  Adam uses them anyway.  If you're possibly going to die, who cares of you use clippers on your head that has touched you friend's junk.

What’s key here is that the film’s potentially contentious mixture of drama and comedy never feels forced.  The miracle of 50/50 is how audaciously forthright it is with its characters, their complex web of emotions, and how everyone in the film finds they own unique – if sometimes rather unorthodox – means of dealing with a debilitating disease.  Front and center, though, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is emerging as one of our most reliably understated and natural actors working today.  He’s a kind of uncharacteristic young performer that’s not encumbered (as so many are) with overreaching for dramatic effect or being annoyingly idiosyncratic in a role.  What Levitt does here – in a very tricky and thankless part – is to evoke how a young, mild mannered, congenial, and easy-going man like Adam struggles to find a means of coping with his disease without coming completely unglued.  He confidently captures the emotional pendulum that everyone, I think, goes through when dealing with such a lousy and potentially fatal ordeal.  Levitt’s finely modulated and delicately poised performance mirrors 50/50’s difficult hodgepodge of crude and bawdy humor and heartfelt sentiment.  By the time the film concludes, you are left with an overwhelming sense that 50/50 has achieved an uncommon depth and a refreshing lack of sanctimonious phoniness.  

It really does become a feel-good comedy about cancer…not an easy task. 

  H O M E