I had to drag myself to see 50/50. I mean, did I really want to see a movie where Joseph Gordon Levitt battles cancer? Especially when the film was (dubiously) dubbed a comedy?
Man, am I glad I went. It’s almost impossible to overstate how lovable a film this is. It’s endearing, clever, moving, and, yes, funny. A cancer film for the rest of us.
Part of what makes 50/50 so good, and so totally grounded in a recognizable reality, is the fact that it was written by Will Reiser, a young comedy writer who himself was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 27 (he’s now in remission). Reiser had the good fortune to be close friends with actor/writer Seth Rogen, who plays Kyle—essentially a fictionalized version of himself—in the film.
50/50 doesn’t fall into the trap of so many cancer films: Just because Gordon Levitt’s Adam has cancer, it doesn’t make him a saint, it doesn’t make him a deeper, more profound human being. He’s just a regular guy dealing with a seriously messed up situation.
So how do a couple of young, funny, hip guys deal when one of them gets cancer? They smoke a lot of weed, make a lot of gallows jokes, and, at Kyles’s urging, attempt to exploit it as an opportunity for both of them to get laid.
50/50 definitely works best as a buddy film. And while Rogen and Gordon-Levitt are playing somewhat familiar archetypes—Adam is dutiful and a bit bashful; Kyle is a garrulous party boy—the chemistry between them is wonderful. (I cried several times during the film, but my biggest blubber was reserved for something revealed about Kyle that I won’t spoil here.)
The rest of Adam’s relationships are a bit hit and miss. I liked the easy, no-bull rapport he shares with Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, his chemo buddies, but saw a particular turn of events coming from a mile away.
There’s the young, hospital-appointed psychologist (Anna Kendrick) who develops a crush on him. The neophyte-therapist-as-love-interest is a bit facile, but their sessions offer a welcome window into Adam’s state of mind—and their burgeoning love story is undeniably charming .
Conversely, the film is a little hard on Adam’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard). Yes, I believe that a young woman might be ill equipped to handle such a game-changing diagnosis—and might even behave in inexcusably selfish ways—but the way her character is drawn feels a bit spiteful (and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was revenge-by-screenplay against an actual ex).
Adam’s mom is played by no less formidable an actress than Anjelica Huston. Adam pushes her away, ostensibly because she’s smothering him, but really because his own fear is reflected in her eyes. To me, his reaction—and Huston’s performance—rang heartbreakingly true.
Trust in the fact that 50/50 is not maudlin or mawkish, but just a darn good time at the movies. You meet characters you care about and even love—you laugh with them and cry with them and watch them stumble and get back up again. And, best of all, you don’t necessarily become a better person for having seen 50/50, just a more entertained one.