There are a number of inherent risks associated with making a film about cancer, especially one billing itself as a comedy. But introducing the malady before we even get to know the character may the ballsiest move in a film that makes a lot of penis jokes.
In 50/50, there are all of about two scenes with 27-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) before the Big C makes its appearance. By the time we have quickly established that the young Seattle professional works for a radio station and has a girlfriend who is slowly moving in with him, we are sitting in a hospital office as a doctor clumsily informs our protagonist that his recent backaches are the result of an aggressive and rare form of spinal cancer.
It's not as if we didn't expect this news, but for it to come before the audience has finished more than a handful of popcorn is bold and sets an immediate tone. Everything we will subsequently learn about Adam comes in the context of a nasty disease requiring immediate chemotherapy and potentially life-threatening surgery. As he learns from the always trusty WebMD, his chances of survival are about 50 percent. These early scenes can't help but feel uneven—we meet just about every major player in the first 10 minutes—but there is important groundwork to be laid during these initial erratic moments. And there is a reward for your patience in the form of a film that ends up deftly melding drama and comedy with surprising earnestness.
It's during the frenetic opening scenes that we also meet Adam's longtime best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), who takes the cancer news harder than Adam's girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard). "I want to throw up," Kyle tells his friend, before quickly pointing out that he has better odds than any casino game. Those of you expecting the same Rogen character we've already seen a handful of times in Judd Apatow films won't be disappointed. The only thing Kyle likes talking about at length more than weed is oral sex—so yeah, he's basically playing the same immature 20-something guy from Knocked Up, only here there's no kid involved.
But this is Rogen's best movie to date in large part because he's playing a role he actually lived. 50/50 is loosely based on the life of Rogen's real-life friend Will Reiser, who battled spinal cancer in his early 20s and ended up writing the screenplay for this film. It's easy to label performances as authentic, but Rogen lends a sense of urgency and loyalty to Kyle's character that goes beyond the normal stoner routine we've become accustomed to. When Kyle catches Rachel cheating on Adam, he reacts as if someone has been unfaithful to him. It's awkward but endearing. And while Kyle's incessant attempts to help Adam use his cancer as a way to meet girls and get laid may get old, all signs point to a friend who sometimes just tries too hard to help his buddy.
Kyle's outsized personality runs counter to Adam's laid-back everyman persona, and Gordon-Levitt is very good as the shell-shocked but resilient victim. His understated demeanor doubles as a defense mechanism, allowing him to play it cool whether he means it or not. The supporting characters who play off Adam are what separate 50/50 from other films that have tried and failed at tackling similarly heavy topics. Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young doctoral student who counsels the sick, doesn't try to hide her inexperience in helping Adam, who seems to enjoy their discussions and the subtle flirting that evolves during each session. And there are scenes in 50/50—most notably those involving two other cancer victims whom Adam gets to know during chemotherapy sessions—that are so thoughtful and heart-wrenching they feel as though they've been ripped straight from a documentary. Apatow can only dream of fusing laughs with tears the way director Jonathan Levine has managed to do here.
50/50 is great in part because our sympathies are not always solely directed at Adam, but rather the family and friends who surround him, some of whom he has taken for granted. Adam's mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) must simultaneously deal with a cancer-stricken son and a husband with Alzheimer's disease. Huston is just fantastic as the well-meaning, stressed-out, overly concerned mother, and the scene in which she tells a surprised Adam about the family cancer support group she attends is among the film's best. Later, in a wonderfully touching hospital waiting-room moment, Diane blurts out to Katherine, "I only smothered him because I loved him so much!"
For all its strengths, 50/50 is still very much a mainstream film about a profoundly depressing topic, and I don't pretend for a minute that there aren't levels of despair far beyond what Gordon-Levitt and Rogen touch on here. And to their credit, the filmmakers don't try to make it something it isn't or couldn't be. You'll laugh about situations that rarely warrant such an emotion, and feel okay about it.
50/50 continues at the Carmike 10.