Cancer. The big “C”. It’s not usually the first thing you think of as being central to a comedy movie but it’s the dark tumour at the centre of 50/50, a film from director Jonathan Levine that’s actually inspired by the real life experience of screenwriter Will Reiser (and his friend, Seth Rogen, who gets to protray a version of himself in the movie).
Let me just say, first and foremost, that 50/50 isn’t a huge laugh-fest from start to finish. That should be obvious, given the subject matter, but I’m sure that many people have still gone into the movie expecting some kind of Knocked Up for cancer patients. Nope, that’s not what you get here. There are a number of amusing moments here and there but the film actually manages to delicately balance the very serious problem of a central character with cancer alongside alternating moments of darkness and light as people deal with the situation in different ways.
The story is a simple one and it’s simply told. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, being brilliant once again) finds out that he has cancer. This obviously shocks him, as it shocks his best friend (Kyle, played by Seth Rogen). Adam’s mother (Angelica Huston) reacts by trying to take over his life while his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) tries to put on a brave face even though she’s used to a more selfish attitude dictating her lifestyle. There’s also a therapist (Anna Kendrick) who is still quite new to her role and struggles to help Adam through the different phases he goes through.
I wanted to really love 50/50 but I didn’t. I guess blending the elements in the way this film does is rarely going to make for a truly satisfying finished product. There are funny moments. There are some very moving moments. The actors all do a fantastic job, Jonathan Levine does fine with the directing, the soundtrack is par for the course for this kind of comedy/drama mix and many little touches will resonate with those who have had their lives made gloomier by the shadow of cancer (which is, sadly, far too many people). I liked it a lot and I was rooting for Adam even as he, understandably, lashed out at those around him. But I just didn’t love it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has done very little wrong in his lengthy career and this is another great performance. Seth Rogen plays a version of himself (as people accuse him of doing in every movie, anyway) so if you don’t like the guy then he’s going to annoy you just as much in this film. Yet you should try to tolerate his behaviour and look beyond the profanity and the brash insensitivity to see a young man struggling to help his best friend kick a disease to the kerb and proceed with living life. I’m sure that many will overlook or dismiss the performance by Rogen but it’s an effective, and actually quite realistic, depiction of robbing something of power by laughing at it and making it work on your behalf (e.g. cancer becomes a “hook” to use to try and pick up women). Anna Kendrick is a great young actress and absolutely fantastic every time she’s onscreen. Angelica Huston is great, Bryce Dallas Howard bravely portrays the least likeable character in the film and Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall are simply wonderful as two fellow sufferers of the disease. Serge Houde does okay with his character (he plays the father of Adam and is also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease) but his presence feels completely superfluous.
This film may upset people who don’t think that cancer is an appropriate subject for comedy. Pah, I say, and pah again. To be able to make fun of something, in the right way, can be an essential coping mechanism. 50/50 works best when it highlights that aspect of human nature, something that many people are uncomfortable with until they end up in a situation that demands they find the shred of levity within their own pain. For that, it deserves to be seen.
DIRECTOR: JONATHAN LEVINE
WRITER: WILL REISER
STARS: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT, SETH ROGEN, ANNA KENDRICK, BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD, ANGELICA HUSTON, PHILIP BAKER HALL, MATT FREWER