Cancer is such a serious subject that creating a whole movie around the disease can be fraught with peril. Such an endeavor can easily succumb to cloying theatrics or high-minded nonsense or some other horrible cliché. So, it is with great joy that I tell you 50/50 avoids all that. Director Jonathan Levine has crafted a smart and funny film that walks a very precarious tightrope.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Adam. He’s 27 and just found out he has a very rare form of cancer. Seth Rogen plays Kyle, Adam’s best bud, but really he’s playing himself. Anjelica Huston is Adam’s smothering mother. Bryce Dallas Howard is the less than altruistic girlfriend. And Anna Kendrick is Katie, Adam’s therapist in training. Will Reiser (Rogen’s real-life friend) wrote the movie, based loosely on his own bout with cancer.
Rogen’s presence left me thinking about Judd Apatow and his repertoire of man-child characters. This isn’t an Apatow production; however, the man-child theme still applies, in a much more subtle and sophisticated fashion. Adam isn’t childish, he’s “just fine.” The film is about him coming to grips with this fact and adjusting his attitude, however slightly. Because the film avoids giant emotions, for the better, this is hard to explain. If I tell you he learns a lesson, which he sort of does, then I’m selling the film short. When I say he changes just a little, it sounds uneventful, which it’s not. The movie is rich and full of life, and you just have to trust me on this one.
By that same rationale, you might not notice it, but Gordon-Levitt is amazing in this movie. He brings a lot of heart and a lot of honesty to the role. He doesn’t make Adam some quirky indie-film guy, but he also doesn’t make Adam so plain as to render him dull. He finds a perfect balance, which is basically the movie in a nutshell. Rogen is funny as ever and really good too, even if he is just playing a version of himself. They use his humor just enough without making it feel forced. Huston and Howard have less screen time but make the most of it.
The movie has a very organic feel about it, like this is all some story your friend is telling you at a party. It’s natural but structured. How else to explain Adam and Katie’s relationship? The rhythm of their scenes is precise and restrained in the best possible way. Kendrick is ridiculously talented, so you might not realize how hard her role actually is. Just watch her face as she tries to answer Gordon-Levitt’s questions honestly but without saying exactly what she wants to. You watch and you be amazed!
The film’s relaxed quality allows the typically mawkish stuff to work without pissing you off. You can shoot a puppy and get a sad reaction out of someone, but it feels wrong. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like have my strings pulled (at least not so obviously). 50/50 has its cake and eats it too. It’s really funny and you will certainly need some tissue afterward. I was bawling… or at least what a black-hearted person would consider bawling. I thought my eyes were broken for a minute, it was so sustained.
I’m finding it difficult not to use clichés when talking about a cancer movie. Just know that the movie is better at avoiding them then I. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry… because of great acting and directing, not Lifetime histrionics.