Cancer isn’t funny. In fact, it’s a total bitch. So how exactly do 50/50‘s writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine manage to wring such an honest, heartfelt, and, yes, funny movie out of such a deadly disease? With a smart script, great cast, and a sensitive approach to the material.
Reiser chronicles his own struggle with spinal cancer in the story. His friend Seth Rogen basically plays himself. So you’re dealing with some very personal material here, but everyone involved feeds off their dedication, turning 50/50 into a universal, and universally funny, piece.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27-year-old news radio producer with an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), a neat-freak personality, and overall a pretty good life. He takes care of himself – the kind of guy who waits for the “walk” sign during his morning jog. But a persistent back pain sends him to the doctor, who gives him the bad news like he’s rattling off box scores. Turns out Adam has a rare spinal tumor that, according to an online health site Adam turns to, has a 50 percent survival rate. “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds,” his optimistic pal Kyle (Rogen) tells him.
With the help of a very sweet but very inexperienced therapist in-training (Anna Kendrick), Adam begins the steps to dealing with his cancer. He buddies up with a pair of older chemotherapy patients (including a pot-smoking Philip Baker Hall) and shaves his head, which Gordon-Levitt actually does on camera while Rogen cringes and tells him he looks like “fuckin’ Michael Stipe.”
The people around him deal with it differently. His girlfriend can’t adjust to her new responsibilities and cheats on Adam. And Kyle takes advantage of his friend’s illness, picking up girls on the sympathy card. He encourages Adam to do the same, calling cancer “your hook. It’s what sets you apart.”
Rogen is great as his most humane character, who pretty much turns out to be a slight variation on himself. He’s a devoted pal, looking out for his sick friend, even when he’s using him to get laid. But it’s Gordon-Levitt – after nailing both a romantic comedy and an action movie in the past two years – who gets to show off what a great actor he’s become since 3rd Rock From the Sun. He gives a funny, empathetic performance, going through all the stages of his illness – from denial to anger – without ever slipping into self-pity. It’s one of the year’s best.
There’s a good reason movies set out to make you either laugh or cry, and rarely even attempt to do both. You can probably rattle off a dozen films that have pulled it off. It’s almost impossible to find the perfect balance. 50/50 hits that special place.