There’s nothing inherently funny about cancer which makes Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 all the more unique among films that tackle the debilitating disease – it’s a comedy. That it manages to be simultaneously funny and heartfelt while still approaching the subject maturely and realistically, without the benefit of manipulative melodrama is an affirmation of the immense talent of the film’s cast and crew.
Adam (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a 20-something, Seattle-based public radio producer whose life is turned inside-out when he is suddenly and coldly informed by his doctor that he has cancer. This is even more surprising since he’s a physically fit guy who doesn’t drink nor smoke and has no family history of the disease. Given a 50/50 chance of making it, Adam begins undergoing chemotherapy and hopes that his closest friends and family will give him the support he needs.
Unfortunately, they’re all more ill-equipped for the situation than him. His best friend Kyle (Seth Rogan), a perpetual pothead, is hardly the best person to look to during this time and not-surprisingly, takes the news even harder than Adam. Still, he does his best to keep the mood lively and optimistic by pretending the disease isn’t even part of the equation. In one scene, he tells Adam that if he were given those odds at a casino, he’d probably have the best ones in the house. Adam’s girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is even worse. Though she is caring at first, her discomfort with the situation begins to grow at an alarming rate (she buys him a greyhound to make him feel better) and it isn’t long before she bolts. Adam’s parents are another story all-together. His loving but over-bearing mother (Angelica Huston) goes into an anxiety attack when she hears the news while his father, an Alzheimer’s patient, sadly, remains mostly ignorant. Even the bubbly Katherine (Anna Kendrick), the illness counselor assigned to Adam, is grossly inept since he’s only her third patient.
The first thing I noticed while watching 50/50 was how honest it is. There aren’t any Terms of Endearment-style tear-jerking scenes; there isn’t any family gathering around the hospital bed with long tearful goodbye scenes; Adam doesn’t magically change into a saint after being diagnosed. Instead, he keeps pursuing his life almost exactly the way he did prior to chemo. Furthermore, for a comedy with quite a good number of raunchy jokes, it’s surprising how informative and genuine it feels. This is in part because the screenplay was written by Will Reiser, a friend of Seth Rogan who battled cancer.
But if there’s anyone who deserves credit for the film’s emotional impact, it’d have to be Joseph Gordon Levitt who gives one of the year’s best performances. Unless you count the head shaving, this is hardly a showy role for the always-in-form young actor who is utterly mesmerizing as Adam. But despite this, he allows the viewer deep into Adam’s mindset and allows us to understand his plight and thus keeps us glued. With his work here, Hesher, Inception and 500 Days of Summer, Levitt is definitely blossoming into the finest actor of his generation.
Rogan is his usual self (since the character is based on him) but it’s another fine comedic performance from the actor who also serves as the film’s producer. Oddly enough, this is the second cancer comedy for Rogan after 2009’s vastly inferior Funny People. Like Rogan, the ever-dependable Kendrick is wonderful in what must have been a challenging role, as is Dallas Howard who is starting a trend playing unlikeable characters (after her work in The Help.)
Hilarious, heartfelt, realistic, surprisingly informative and plain inspiring, 50/50 is one of those wonderful comedies that you wish they made more of. With a magnificent lead performance from Joseph Gordon Levitt and fine supporting work from Seth Rogan, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard, this is a truly good movie that demonstrates that sometimes you need to find strength from within to beat the odds.
PS. Apart from being a great movie, the film has a superb soundtrack to boot!