The worst descriptor one could use for 50/50 is “that cancer comedy,” for no other reason than because it oversimplifies what is a stunningly poignant, moving and occasionally devastating film that deals with one of the most dreadful diseases known to man. Of course, the hook is that 50/50 is also incredibly funny, bordering on hysterically so at times, yet the humor is so wry and bittersweet that it creates an emotionally jarring picture that, even when you’re laughing at loud, always feels like you’re waiting for the next gut punch. And I mean all of that in a very, very good way.
50/50 stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Adam, a winsome, good natured 20-something who, after being afflicted with strange pains in his back for some time, finally goes to the doctor where he discovers that, to his despairing astonishment, he has cancer. A particularly voracious kind of cancer (that I can’t possibly reproduce the full name of), and his survival chances are somewhere around 50 percent. Adam takes the news surprisingly in stride, not quite accepting his fate, not quite descending into despair, but instead simply trying to understand his chances and do what he needs to do to try to beat it. At the same time, everyone around him goes into full-blown panic mode, whether it’s his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), whose coping mechanism is to try to get Adam laid; his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who can’t seem to truly invest herself in Adam’s new problems, or his adorably manic mother (Anjelica Huston), who defaults to smothering mode. Each of them seems to be slipping into their own almost selfish world of coping with Adam’s problems, while none of them are, at least visibly, truly giving Adam the support that he needs.
Representing his harsh internal realities are a new set of acquaintances that Adam makes, including Kathleen (Anna Kendrick) a young, inexperienced and out-of-her-depth therapist, as well as two older gentlemen that Adam meets during chemotherapy sessions, played with the brutally honest, dry-wit brilliance of Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer (yes, Max Headroom himself).
Where the film goes from there needs to be seen to be fully appreciated, but what’s important is that writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) have carefully crafted an amazing film that’s simultaneously beautiful, despairing, uplifting, hilarious and heartbreaking. Unlike most films that deal with cancer, it’s neither a maudlin sobfest nor a film filled with forced triumphs of the human spirit. Instead, it’s simply a film about Adam and the people he loves, and each of them comes with their own foibles, dramas, quirks and tragedies. None of Adam’s friends know quite what to do, because deep down inside, they know there simply isn’t anything they can do. There’s a bracing and discomforting honesty that comes with their portrayals, and the actors fill their roles to bursting with a heartfelt resonance that was at times almost too much to bear.
That this particular group of actors shone so brightly should be no surprise, though in Rogen’s case I was a bit taken aback at some of his more dramatic moments. For the most part, he plays Seth Rogen, the affable douchebag that we’ve come to know and (well, some of us anyway) love. Yet there’s a surprising depth to his character — the conflicted confusion of an amiable dope whose best friend is slowly slipping away, both literally and figuratively, and he resorts to what he knows best to try to cope with it. Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rachael has perhaps the toughest supporting role, in that it’s far and away the least likable, though that’s a testament to her ability. Rachael and Adam are still in the early phases of a relationship, not even close to a true commitment, when Adam’s affliction smashes into their tenuous companionship. Rachael’s determination to do “the right thing” has consequences that were unforeseen, and it’s an interesting spin on the relationship dynamics of a couple where one of them takes ill. What is the right thing to do? Stand by a man that you’re not even sure you loved in the first place? Or abandon him, and risk the subsequent self-loathing and guilt? It’s a complicated role Howard handles quite well, even if it’s a thankless and unpleasant one. On the other end of the spectrum is therapist Kathleen, who should know what the right things to do and say are, yet finds that her training is failing her in the face of Adam’s eventual crisis of mortality, as well as her inability to emotionally detach herself from his case.
There’s a certain predictability to 50/50, but the writing is so well-executed that it doesn’t matter. The dialogue is crisp and unforced, with none of the artificial conversational contrivances that movies about younger generations (my own included) sometimes depict. There aren’t sweeping speeches or rain-splattered declarations of love, there’s no soaring music or moments of clarity. Instead, there’s simply love and hate, joy and anguish, fear and comfort, all delicately woven into a challenging story. What makes it all that much more remarkable is the filmmakers’ ability to create such a gamut of emotions that feel genuine. 50/50 goes barreling through that emotional gauntlet, yet it does so with a quiet sense of purpose. At the same time, it’s also uproariously funny, which creates an visceral sense of dissonance. It’s an almost uncomfortable imbalance, a tumbling sense of uncontrolled swaying between brilliant, self-effacing humor and abrupt descents into heartrending poignancy.
50/50 is a testament to the best kind of filmmaking. It’s a brilliant run through a complex emotional issue that manages to touch upon all of the incumbent feelings of dread, sadness, joy, humor, desperation, and happiness. It’s one of the funniest, most intelligent movies of 2011, and certainly the most affecting. It’s a heartbreaker at times, but it’s also filled with a peculiar sense of winsome joie de vivre that makes it all the more engaging, and made it unquestionably my favorite movie of the year so far.
And seriously, fuck cancer.