April 2024

50/50 (2011)

50 50DIRECTOR: Jonathan Levine

CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer


Movies about characters with cancer are a dime a dozen, but what gives 50/50 a little distinction is its approach.  At least for the majority of its running time, this is not a tearjerker; in fact, as unlikely as this might sound, it’s in full comedy-drama mode.  Inspired by the real-life experiences of screenwriter and producer Will Reiser, who wrote the script after his own battle with cancer, 50/50 manages—for the most part—to find an effective tricky balance in a middle ground between disrespectfully flippant and overly mawkish.  The result is far from perfect, but Reiser’s sense of humor about his ordeal makes for a refreshingly irreverent take on a difficult subject that’s far more watchable—and still occasionally touching without being overbearing about it—than some Lifetime melodramatic weepfest.

Will Reiser’s movie stand-in is Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old Seattle public radio editor so mild-mannered and inoffensive that he refuses to cross an empty street until the “walk” sign lights up and doesn’t drive because he read it’s one of the five leading causes of death, whose uneventful life consists of hanging out with his crude, vulgar best buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen) and his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and working on an upcoming news story about a volcano.  One day, Adam’s persistent back pain leads him to the doctor’s office, where Adam is stunned to find he has a rare form of spinal cancer with a 50/50 survival rate.  His social circle reacts to the news in different ways.  Rachael vows to stand by him, but is unprepared for finding herself the caretaker of a cancer-stricken boyfriend, and may not be up to the task.   Kyle tries to be supportive the only way he knows how; falling back on his sophomoric frat boy persona and trying to distract Adam by turning his life into a 24/7 party, which isn’t always helpful.  Adam’s clingy mother (Anjelica Huston) goes into overprotective mode, smothering him until he doesn’t answer her calls and avoids her as much as possible.  Meanwhile, Adam befriends two far older fellow chemotherapy patients, Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), and an inexperienced student therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who’s studying for her doctorate and has only had two patients before.  Both Adam and the audience quickly realize Katherine is a fumbling therapist, but she might make a better friend—and possibly more—when he needs one.

50/50 isn’t especially original, except in its tone given the subject matter.  At times, especially in the character of the slobbish sidekick Kyle, and to a lesser extent the hovering mother hen, it’s in sitcom territory, and it hits a bunch of cliched plot elements: the goofball best friend, the unfaithful girlfriend, the new budding love interest, the smothering mother, the old codgers who befriend the youth, etc.  What keeps 50/50 watchable instead of stale is the approach.  Instead of solemnly imparting cliched life lessons, the old codgers hook Adam up with marijuana-laced cookies, and soon they’re all getting stoned together (with Kyle of course inserting himself into the party).  Reiser and Levine find the tricky balance of having a big sense of humor, even of the dark, gallows variety, while also hitting the brakes at sometimes unexpected moments to remind us of the gravity of the situation.  The movie has a lot of humor, more than most viewers would ever expect to find in a “cancer movie”, but treats its most serious moments with appropriate weight.  While the script is inspired by and takes various elements from Reiser’s real-life cancer battle, it’s not strictly speaking a “true story”; Reiser has summed it up as “50/50″ fact and fiction (according to Reiser, Adam’s relationships with his best friend and mother are based most closely off Reiser’s own, while other plot elements, including the character of Katherine and Adam’s Alzheimer’s-suffering father, are fictional).  There are little moments of authenticity that speak to Reiser’s insider knowledge, such as the way Adam stares blankly as the doctor tells him about his ” intraduaral extradural malignant Schwannoma neurofibrosarcomas”, and then when the doctor finally says the word “cancer”, he doesn’t hear anything after that.  There aren’t any melodramatic speeches or wannabe Oscar clips of anyone wailing and sobbing.  The budding friendship with semi-romantic undertones between Adam and Katherine is low-key and a kiss isn’t shoved in just to be doing it.  A fair quotient of the humor is crude and vulgar—mostly Seth Rogen’s lines—but a lot of it is of the wry, bittersweet “laugh instead of cry” variety, with the result that some viewers might do both before the end credits.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who stepped in when James McAvoy pulled out at the last minute) provides a grounded, serious presence to anchor the film, and his natural affability makes Adam an easily likable and sympathetic protagonist.  Rather than rely on a bald cap, Gordon-Levitt shaves his own head on-camera.  His performance is low-key and subdued and avoids melodramatic histrionics or mawkish attempts at tear-jerking.  His best acting moment—the night before the big “all or nothing” operation when he finally has a long-awaited meltdown—makes more impression because it’s the only time in the movie we see Adam lose his cool.  Last year’s Inception got Gordon-Levitt some exposure in a big summer blockbuster, but he does his best work in these kinds of lower-key more character-oriented indie comedy-dramas, like 2009’s 500 Days of Summerwhere he can shine (50/50 got him his second Golden Globe nomination, the first being for 500 Days of Summer).  Seth Rogen is somewhat less successful.  For Rogen, coming off a string of vulgar Judd Apatow sex comedies, this is an attempt to step into somewhat more serious material, but Kyle is the same “lovable asshole”, big, loud, crude, obnoxious, sex-brained, that Rogen always plays (to be fair, he does have a couple scattered more serious moments, but most of it’s Rogen being Rogen).  In a bit of casting trivia, Rogen is the real-life best friend of screenwriter Reiser, meaning he’s basically playing himself (and indicating he’s pretty much always playing himself).  He has a few funny lines but also scenes where he’s a bit much.  The movie would have been better if Rogen’s role had been reduced or if he’d toned himself down a little more, though his large role and relatively free rein is perhaps unsurprising considering he’s also one of the producers.  Anjelica Huston brings more depth to an equally stereotypical role—the worrywart mother hen—although she’s underused and only has a few scenes (in my version, Rogen would have had less screentime and Huston would have had more).  Other, more subdued comic relief comes from Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer.  Anna Kendrick, who appears in the Twilight series but is best-known as an Oscar nominee for Up In the Air opposite George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, has the right mix of out-of-her-depth awkwardness and genuine concern as fledgling therapist Katherine.  Katherine is a fumbling therapist—she puts her foot in her mouth when trying to give comforting speeches, and often sounds like she’s reciting lines she’s memorized out of some psychiatry booklet—but she cares, which might help make up for the rest.  Bryce Dallas Howard is relegated to the thankless role of the unfaithful girlfriend who cheats on her cancer-stricken boyfriend, but while most viewers aren’t likely to sympathize with her, her situation—suddenly finding herself thrust into a position of caretaker she’s unprepared for and not cut out to handle, but feeling too guilty to leave—is at least somewhat understandable.

50/50 isn’t perfect, but it’s a refreshingly irreverent take on a difficult subject that avoids being either disrespectfully flippant or mawkishly overwrought.  It’s clear that Reiser chose to face the prospect of his own mortality with laughter instead of tears.  By hitting both points evenly, 50/50 will give many viewers both.

* * *