Screenwriters have had a love affair with cancer over the years. Terms of Endearment, Brian’s Song, Dying Young – all feature a character who has cancer. Another thing those movies share: a zero percent survival rate. Is it any wonder that people view any cancer as a death sentence, since the message of almost every movie on the subject is “you get cancer, you die.” Dying Young made no pretense of Campbell Scott’s fate. He was toast right from the title card.
50/50 changes that. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works for public radio in Seattle. Recurring, strong back pain sends him to a doctor who has all the compassion of a warthog. When Adam finally wades through the techno-babble of the physician with the help of Web-MD, he learns he has a rare form of cancer on his spine and has a 50% chance of survival.
Adam’s best friend and co-worker Kyle (Seth Rogan) focuses on the positive when he hears the news, pointing out that if Adam were a table game in Vegas, his 50% survival rate would be the best odds in the house. Adam’s family and lover react less positively. His mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), is already dealing with the onset of Alzheimer’s in Adam’s father. Discovering her 27-year-old son has cancer is a shock. (In a sly nod at the previous movies, Adam tries to ease into telling her by referencing Terms of Endearment.) Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s live-in lover, greets the news with brittle resolve to care for him, though it crumbles when she’s faced with driving him to chemotherapy appointments and hearing him retch in the bathroom.
50/50 came out of the experience of Will Reiser, a comedian who was also an associate producer on shows like Da Ali G Show. He battled cancer with the help of his best friend, Seth Rogan. Reiser wrote the screenplay and appears in a small role. Rogan produced the movie as well as plays a fictionalized version of himself. As with other Rogan movies such as Knocked Up, 50/50 is one of the funniest movies of the year (and definitely the funniest movie ever about cancer). It also has poignant moments, and a true heart that puts it miles above the disease-of-the-week genre.
After his childhood gig on 3rd Rock from the Sun, Gordon-Levitt moved into independent films, building a reputation with Brick and The Lookout. He broke into romantic comedy territory (and broke out in song) in (500) Days of Summer. Now, thanks to Inception and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, he’s even doing blockbusters. In 50/50 he carries the movie with his restrained and honest performance. When he lets the rage he’s feeling finally come out, it is all the more impacting and realistic.
While Gordon-Levitt is restrained, Rogan is outrageous, refusing to let his friend hide behind the disease and keeping him engaged in life. He’s crude and coarse, and he’s the kind of fierce friend you’d want to have if you were facing a devastating disease. Howard’s Rachael is at the opposite end of the friend spectrum. She’s a self-centered artist who caves when Adam needs support. With The Help earlier this summer and now 50/50, she is in danger of frightening young children and making dogs growl just by walking into a room, but Howard plays the character as it needs to be played. Anjelica Huston is pitch-perfect as Adam’s kind of scary but deeply loving mother.
Three other roles shine. During chemo, Adam is befriended by Alan and Mitch (veteran character actors Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer). They bond while sharing “happy” macaroons and the older men help Adam through the chemo. Adam is also assigned to a trainee counselor named Katherine (Anna Kendrick) while he undergoes treatment. Kendrick was outstanding in Up In The Air last year, but she is even better in this role. Katherine finds herself attracted to Adam as he works out his feelings about his life and the disease he’s facing, though she maintains her professionalism, knowing that is what Adam needs. Their scenes involving the therapeutic nature of touch are especially well done.
Director Jonathan Levine has only a few previous credits, but he shows an assured hand in sculpting this movie, keeping the comedy in perfect balance with scenes of deep emotion. Every note rings true throughout the movie.
If you are hesitating about seeing another film dealing with cancer, slice that hesitation out of your body and go see this movie.