Cancer isn’t funny. It may, in fact, be the least funny topic one can broach. Yet somehow, behind-the-scenes guy and screenwriter Will Reiser has found a way to tell a story about cancer that produces more than a few laughs. It certainly helps that the story is Reiser’s own (with a few changes); the writer was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at 24. Though we’re quick to outrage when someone mocks the sick or oppressed, we’re happy to join in when the sick and oppressed mock themselves. And nobody can deny that laughter is an ice pick for fear. Any way you look at it, Reiser and Director Jonathan Levine have broken a barrier once thought unbreakable and created 50/50, perhaps the world’s first successful cancer joke.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a nice guy living in Seattle, working at a radio station, trying to get serious with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and waxing crude with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). Generally being a 27-year-old. When back pain brings him to the doctor’s office, he is told plainly that he has a rare form of cancer, that they must begin treatment right away, that his chances are fifty-fifty. Adam becomes a full-time patient, reassuring his loved ones and doing his best to deny mortality. He starts seeing a startlingly young therapist named Katie (Anna Kendrick), and ignores his mother’s (Anjelica Huston) frantic and frequent phone calls. But when the dam breaks and he can no longer ignore his reality, Adam sheds his amicable veneer, and begins to take stock of the things that matter, and the people he can truly count on.
The first act of 50/50 is just filler, and seems almost unnecessary. We all know what the film is about; the poster is a picture of Levitt shaving his own head. Within the first twenty or so minutes it’s made abundantly clear how normal Adam is, how familiar his circumstances to those of us in the audience. “It can happen to anybody!” Even once Adam is diagnosed, 50/50 doesn’t seem terribly intent on utilizing gravity or going to dark places. The film, much like the character, continues to plod along for awhile, bringing our guard down. This is Levine’s master stroke. Most of us are at least partially aware of the process of grief, and the role that denial plays. Reiser’s Adam doesn’t scream or cry or go into any of the other traditional hysterics. He even forgives his flaky girlfriend’s miserable attempts at caretaking. And then, all of that comes to an end, and Adam finds himself staring into the abyss. The film turns too, becoming rawer and darker, far more capable of giving us something to feel. It is from this point on that 50/50 becomes the movie people are talking about, hazily bridging the gap between drama and comedy with the ballsy exuberance of a survivor.
I genuinely like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and I’m rooting for the guy, but there aren’t many roles he has won me over with. I hated 500 Days of Summer, and I just didn’t buy him in Inception. Finally Levitt has found a role that suits his look and style: an every day nice guy who has to literally glimpse death to take ownership of his life. Levitt’s Adam is a character we’ve seen before, specifically in a few Woody Allen movies: a guy too nice or too scared to effect the world around him, forced to float along in a boat of anxiety. Here though, with the added trauma of cancer, the character is brought low and pushed to a breaking point. His relationships are brought under a magnifying glass, and Levine and Levitt do a fantastic job of exploring them. In particular, Adam’s relationship with his mother is familiar and heart-wrenching. Anjelica Huston, true to her talent, is a scene-stealer without being overly hysterical or manic. Adam’s mother loves him fiercely, and their journey to common ground is well developed. And Anna Kendrick as Therapist Katie proves again that she belongs on the big screen. She is one of those rare talents whose charm is unquantifiable, and simply gleams in every scene. As for Seth Rogen, what can be said? He has somehow turned another perfectly nice character into a bit of an asshole. That’s not to say that Kyle is bad or even wholly unlikable, but there is just something about Rogen that keeps an audience from trusting him. He is volatile and intense, and though it can often serve humor beautifully, it’s far more of a crap shoot in the dramatic realm.
This isn’t a melodrama, and it isn’t an opportunity for a group of funny guys to show that their capable of sentimentality (though I suppose it does that). It’s a story about the darkest time in a young man’s life, and the importance of appreciating what you have. Watching 50/50 is as close to living with cancer as most of us are like to get (i.e. not all that close), and a considerable reminder of what it does to a person, both physically and emotionally. It may be that the most important contribution the film makes is to its audience, as it’s nearly impossible to watch 50/50 without contemplating all the things that matter most to you, and all the people you love.