50/50 *** ½
Directed by: Jonathan Levine.
Written by: Will Reiser.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Adam), Seth Rogen (Kyle), Anna Kendrick (Katherine), Bryce Dallas Howard (Rachael), Anjelica Huston (Diane), Serge Houde (Richard), Andrew Airlie (Dr. Ross), Matt Frewer (Mitch), Philip Baker Hall (Alan).
When you’re 27 years old, cancer is the last thing on your mind. But for Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that nagging pain in his side turns out to be a rare kind of spinal cancer, and it sends his whole word into a loop. He was a young guy, working a cool job alongside his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) and has a pretty girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and everything seems fine. The biggest problem he has is that his mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston) worries too much, and his father has alzheimers. But when you get cancer, no matter how old you are, everything changes.
What I admired most about 50/50 is that it is not another dire movie about cancer. It’s also not an inspirational movie, where we are moved by the cancer patient’s brave struggle against the illness. Instead, it is a movie full of life and humor. Yes, there is a dark undercurrent behind the movie, but this is not a typical cancer movie, which is exactly why it works so well.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has emerged in the past few years as one of the best actors of his generation, and he pretty much carries 50/50 on his shoulders. He nails the comedy and the drama in the movie, and makes Adam into a real living human being – not just the “guy with cancer”. It seems like he struggles more with meeting everyone’s expectations of him, rather than with the illness itself. He goes off to his chemo treatments, still hangs out with his best friend, and when his girlfriend cheats on him, he reacts the same way any guy would. She has excuses of course, but he doesn’t much care. He knew that the cancer would be hard on both of them and their relationship – he even gave her out when he first found out about it – but she goes ahead and cheats anyway. It is an accomplishment of the movie – and the wonderful Bryce Dallas Howard – that you understand, if not forgive, her actions.
The only time that Adam truly gets to be himself – to truly confront his illness head on – is in his therapy sessions with the young woman working on her doctorate – Katherine (Anna Kendrick). He was expecting someone older – but then again, so was she. Kendrick, who like Gordon-Levitt, has emerged as an actor who I cannot help buy love every time I see her, hits the right notes in her role as well. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing, but she tries really hard – and it helps that Adam seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing – and calls her on it when she gets to “therapist” with him. He wants no bullshit.
The movie has a nice, relaxed feel to it – and the interactions between pretty much all the characters feels genuine – even Seth Rogen, who we at first think is just being his same old shallow self, but the performance really has much more going on in it. The film was written by Rogen’s friend Will Reiser, who survived his own battle with cancer, and decided he wanted to write a movie about what he went through. Perhaps most cancer patients don’t go through everything like Adam does, but the journey still feels real.
The movie moves along fairly effortlessly for its first two acts – mixing comedy and drama with ease and letting us get to know its characters. The third act, which is when the real heavy lifting comes in, is surprisingly moving. The movie suckers you into thinking that you’re watching a comedy, that just happens to be about a guy with cancer, and then hits you hard in the final reel. You may be surprised just how moved you are by the movie – I certainly way. But that’s what happens when you get a writer who has lived through something like this, coupled with an actor of Gordon-Levitt’s ability, who wins you over without you even realizing it. Director Jonathan Levine does a wonderful job here as well. I don’t think 50/50 is quite a great movie – and it may well be not all that true to life – but it works surprisingly well for what it is.