Despite the pedigree of its cast 50/50 was always a risky proposition. Promoted as “The cancer comedy” (despite the fact that it’s very much a drama as well), it could have been insensitive, crass, or it could have given in to mawkishness. But it’s also based on the real-life experience of writer Will Reiser.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27. He runs, he doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, he recycles. The biggest problem in his life is that his sex life with his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) has taken a downward turn. But when he’s diagnosed with cancer, his life and his relationships come into very sharp focus.
Laughing at death is all very well and good, but things get tricky when it comes to dealing with someone undergoing cancer treatment. This is not something that we traditionally make light of. Crucially, 50/50 does not make light of cancer or suffering. Instead it finds the humour in the extreme situations that Adam finds himself in. Everyone starts treating him differently. His best friend Kyle (Rogen) tries to get him laid, while getting himself laid in the bargain. His therapist Katherine, who is younger than he is, is still working on her doctorate and is just as uncomfortable in the therapy sessions as he is. Adam finds himself in a situation which is impossible to comprehend and that’s where the comedy comes from.
And it’s also the source for the drama. Adam’s reeling from his relationship falling apart and trying to make sense of his friendship/relationship with Katharine. Making friends with fellow sufferers (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) reminds him of the probable outcome of his illness. Everything becomes very important very quickly because of the fact that the clock might be ticking. 50/50 walks this tightrope of the absurdity of trying to deal with this kind of situation with the tragedy of time running short very well.
It’s helped enormously by the casting of Gordon-Levitt as Adam. He’s an actor who can balance comedy and drama very well and his portrayal of Adam as a good guy who suddenly needs to decide whether to continue to let things drift or to try and sort them out is both winning and heart-breaking. Rogen’s better than he has been for some time, with the best friend role allowing him to be a little less likeable but no less funny. Kendrick (Up in the Air) gives another expertly judged performance as the therapist struggling to keep her boundaries, there’s a solid turn from Howard (The Help) as Rachel, and Anjelica Huston is predictably great as Adam’s mother.
Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) is a good fit, knowing when to add some quirky visual touches and when to let the actors do the heavy lifting. Reiser’s script completely nails the balance between light and dark. The film goes to some emotional places but it never feels forced. There’s arguably a little too much time spent with Kyle and Adam, and not enough fleshing out Katherine or Rachel. However, it’s a smart and touching comedic drama that boasts excellent performances.
Verdict: 50/50 is genuinely touching and funny, with another superb turn from Gordon-Levitt.