I haven’t been around much cancer so far in my life, though I know that will change. To be clear, I’ve most certainly been affected by cancer- I’ve lost two grandparents to it. But, since they both died far away from me, I haven’t spent any time in its near vicinity or seen the details of its effects- the radiation, the vomiting, the hair loss, not to mention the heavy despair that is part and parcel. I imagine just being around it is a wearying, spirit-breaking experience. I definitely wouldn’t look to the experience for laughs. But Will Reiser, the write of 50/50, has mined a great story from his own personal experience as a spinal cancer patient, and he happens to have written it under the guise of a raunchy comedy.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is our main character, and Adam is normal. He works out. He has a mildly enjoyable job. He’s getting serious with his girlfriend (he cleared out a drawer for her stuff). He has a good dude-bro-friend in Kyle (Seth Rogen). He even recycles. But when he goes in to get a back pain checked out, he is told he has cancer. Kyle helps him cope with this news in various ways, including encouraging Adam to use the diagnosis to get chicks to feel bad for him and letting Adam use his (used) clippers. Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), tries to play the part of devoted caretaker, but it’s clear to us (and to Kyle, who hates her) that her heart isn’t in it. Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) shows signs of smothering, so he shuts her out. And his new therapist (who is just as new to therapy as Adam is) is about as helpful as- well, she’s not the least helpful person in his life.
While there are some funny parts, I wouldn’t really call this a comedy. It’s just a different take on a story about a man who is suffering from cancer. I don’t know how realistically they portray this experience (I’ll bet it’s much worse in real life), but we don’t need every detail from real life to believe good characters. Reiser and his director, Jonathan Levine, avoid cliches by allowing the actors to create complex characters and by giving them a script that considers the effects of cancer on these specific characters’ lives, and not from any preconceived notions or expectations that we might have. And it helps that there’s some comedy- perhaps not belly-laugh comedy, but there are several hilarious moments, and the whole movie radiates with an ironic humor.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has already proven himself to be a capable actor in an offbeat comedy-drama, and he’s equally great here. He never goes for the laugh, but makes Adam a man who just responds to his condition in natural ways, which also happen to be funny. Seth Rogen at first seems to be playing his normal schlub role, but he’s actually playing himself (he played the similar real-life role of best friend through Reiser’s bout with cancer). I’m assuming this is a more shallow version of himself; we can hardly blame him for being a jerk sometimes, but regardless, he’s a jerk. However, over the course of the movie, we watch as Kyle is forced to become a deeper person for his friend. Anna Kendrick plays Adam’s therapist, and she has awkwardly good (or is that goodly awkward?) chemistry with Gordon-Levitt. Like him, she’s not trying to be funny, and that’s why it works. Huston and Howard have potentially thankless roles, but turn them into rich characters.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was a very good movie. It beat its genre expectations, and while it would have been easy to fall into the trap of making it cloying or offensive, 50/50 manages to leave them both in its dust.
Isn’t that scene from (500) Days of Summer one of the happiest and best things ever filmed?