Cancer. Saying (Or in this case, seeing) the word just once is enough to set an alarm off in one’s core of emotions. It’s a sensitive subject that’s all too real, all too common, and all too tragic. But don’t take any objective synopses that you’ve read about 50/50 too harshly: While it’s as comedic as the studio, critics, and moviegoers are labeling it, it’s also a very real and riveting drama that doesn’t shy away from shedding light on the lowest of emotions that one can experience from such an ordeal, as well as the emotions experienced by their loved ones. At its heart, it’s a humorous, moving, and uplifting story about life and the people who make it worth living.
Will Reiser, a cancer survivor, wrote this Jonathan Levine-directed film inspired by his own experiences, which makes it honest as well brings a fresh and legitimate new perspective to the topic in narrative film. It’s not going to be the same experience that people have had, but at its core, many people will be able to connect with it, and sympathize with a character, or two or more. 50/50 follows a 27-year-old named Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Seattle public radio writer who works with his best friend, a womanizing, weed-smoking, and wisecracking guy named Kyle (Seth Rogen, a co-producer on the film), and has a lovely artist girlfriend named Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). Right from the start of the movie, Adam experiences an overwhelming pain in his back and not long soon after, he gets some very unexpected news from his doctor: it’s a benign tumor, a type of bone cancer at a stage where the survival rate is 50/50. In disbelief, Adam breaks the news to Kyle and Rachael, who react in starkly contrasting ways. He also tells his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston), whose husband and Adam’s father Richard (Serge Houde) suffers from Alzheimer’s, thus making her more protective of Adam despite his resistance. At the hospital, Adam develops a confidant in Katie (Anna Kendrick), the young and inexperienced therapist assigned to him, and comrades in Alan and Mitch (Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer), two older and potty-mouthed chemotherapy patients. For an hour-and-a-half, 50/50 explores what one young man endures in hopes of placing the odds in life’s favor, and how his relationships with these people progress (and regress) throughout.
It’s easy to get very emotionally invested in the story and especially all that happens to Adam. As each minute passes, we get a better sense of who he is and how the cancer is affecting him, both bodily and on the inside, and with the people he loves. He has no ego—He’s just a regular, homely guy that could be your brother, son, relative, friend, or boyfriend, and that makes it all the more difficult to watch him suffer. At the same time, there’s a sense of optimism in his battle, and this mostly comes from the people he is surrounded by. Adam’s friends at the hospital ease him up and Kyle constantly finds ways to share his free spirit with him, such as taking him out to bars to meet people and getting him a prescription for medical marijuana. Katie, only working with her third patient ever, also becomes an integral part of his support system. Their interactions are more complex than it should be, but necessary as it initially gives Adam an objective party to vent his feelings to. Ultimately, she helps him smooth out the kinks in his other relationships, brightens his perspective, and reaches out to him as a friend. The depiction of the familial relationships is arguably the saddest part to watch. Although it’s humorous to see Diane be so overbearing (i.e. Telling him she’ll move in with him, then make him green tea because it reduces to risk of cancer even though he already has it; calling him pretty much every minute on both his cell and landline), it’s a bit disheartening to see how Adam reacts to her maternal instincts and when he finally lets her in, it’s only when he has sunk so low. Additionally, he has a father who is unaware of what is happening, which puts another weight on the already-heavy subject matter.
Along with a well-written script, making the film so believable are the performances by the cast, notably by Gordon-Levitt in the lead role. He truly immerses himself in his character, putting himself in the shoes, through the IV, and bathroom head-shaving (with Kyle’s balls-hair trimmer) of Adam. The pain, disillusion, and anger he evokes, as well as the joy in the moments he lives in, is mesmerizing. We’re truly watching the person in the script, not an actor playing him. Once again, Gordon-Levitt demonstrates excellence and versatility in choosing his roles as well as rising up to their challenges. However, the rest of the cast carries the film rather profoundly too. Though Rogen’s role isn’t much of a departure as the typical man-child sidekick, he does provide much of the laugh-out-loud lines and moments to put the comedy in comedy-drama and shows off his great comic timing. But more importantly, there’s humanity to his character, shown more subtly through looks and silences, and Rogen goes through the motions and handles it very well. Kyle has his own ways of showing Adam he cares about him and that’s a definite part of what adds the lightness to the weightiness. Another surprisingly comic character—moreso than the mother—is Katie, a great role for the naturally awkward but endearing Kendrick. Again, like Rogen, it’s not that much of a departure from the roles she normally plays, but the fact that she has to deal with such a tough subject and does it with both humor and honesty steps her up. And while Howard has by far the least likable character in the movie, she continues to show that at least she’s still a really good crier.
The only gaping flaw in 50/50 is that at only an hour-and-a-half, there could have been more extended scenes and more exploration and development with some of the relationships. But as this film will show, life is short, so maybe the film had to be short and drift on by too. With its compelling story and script and highly impressive cast performances, 50/50 is filmmaking without gimmicks, just a new way of looking at true-life obstacles. There are bound to be both tears and laughter in the audience—one reaction after the other and at times, both at once. In all, this is one film that will strike a chord with its lessons on friendship, family, love, and life and how blessings can come from the most unexpected of situations.
50/50 opens in theaters nationwide on September 30th.