‘It’s cancer.’ Those words are a devastating diagnosis, whether delivered in the real world or up on a movie screen. For films, it’s usually a death sentence of saccharine melodrama and repetitious, somber goodbyes tearfully delivered by self-serious actors. Has there ever been a truly funny movie about terminal illness that wasn’t also satirical in some sense? There is now.
Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 avoids the typical trap of films about young people dying and targets our defense mechanisms; particularly humor. It doesn’t feel sorry for itself, but doesn’t hide behind jokes either—the comedy comes from the cold reality of living on borrowed time. This isn’t a eulogy or a pity party, but a memoir of pain and perseverance with a big, brave smile on its face.
The story is simple and matter-of-fact. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a public radio writer in Seattle, goes to the doctor with an ache in his back and subsequently learns he has spinal cancer, with the shrewd diagnosis that his chances of seeing his 28th birthday are about ‘50/50’. That scene with the doctor, like several others in the film, is cheerfully biased to expose the way those who are sick deal with insincerity, insensitivity and often fear from those who are—in their perception—perfectly well. Adam tries to go on with his life. There’s a big, dark tentative cloud hanging over it. His body isn’t doing him any favors either, and he’s got the real physical repercussions to deal with on top of it. His attitude starts to change, his understanding of his life with it, and then finally there’s the impact of his diagnosis on his relationships.
Here the film excels, and it’s in no small part to Will Reiser’s screenplay, based off his own struggles with spinal cancer in his mid 20’s. This is live, messy writing that aims not for structural integrity but emotional resonance. One of those faux screenwriting courses that boils everything down to formula would probably scoff at Reiser’s work. He leans heavily on his own memories and feelings to plot Adam’s turbulent advance through the mine field of his disease and it pays off. When Bryce Dallas Howard’s girlfriend Rachel turns out to be a mega-bitch of much derision, it doesn’t quite feel fair or charitable to whomever her real-world counterpart was. It is not easy to play caregiver for someone who, more than anything else, believes they are dying. But in Reiser’s dialogue and characterizations, we better understand the sting and venom; hers is a monstrous betrayal in Adam’s eyes, and Reiser pushes the idea that this is how it felt, no matter the circumstances.
Seth Rogen plays Kyle, Adam’s best friend, and the man who offers him hope, compassion, humor and borrowed bravery when everyone else, Adam included, seems to be ready to bury him and get it over with. Reiser and Rogen are friends in real life, and Reiser has spoken on the record how helpful and supportive Rogen has been, through the illness and now through remission. Rogen is so often accused of playing himself, that when he more or less must actually do it, no one is surprised. And yet, I’m a fan of his work here. The goofball class clown act fades in the later chapters, and Rogen’s Kyle displays depth and feeling for Adam we could have only guessed at. The aloof, snarky demeanor of oh so many Judd Apatow flicks slowly melts and in the third act Rogen must deliver harder, more sincere emotions that are mostly bereft of comedic escape.
Philip Baker Hall, playing one of the member’s of Adam’s recovery group, walks a graceful line between soulful acceptance and dry resignation. He provides many of the film’s sillier moments but also gives Gordon-Levitt someone to play off, who knows the road ahead but like Adam has yet to reach the destination. Hall is a class act as an actor and here he makes those scenes involving the inevitable drugs amusing and heartfelt. Anjelica Huston as Adam’s mom is another solid rock that grounds the film’s tragi-comic intent. Her unending and intrusive care of Adam is well-intended but adds additional stress to Adam’s life as he attempts to deal with more difficult stages of the illness. Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard as the love interests do their part, but are always upstahed by Rogen and Gordon-Levitt. This is really appropriate; 50/50 is kind of a platonic love story, two guys holding fast to friendship, not in the face of death so much as in the face of living within close proximity of death.
There’s one more I have yet to talk about, and it’s a case of saving the best for last. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has quietly snuck up on us over the last 17 or so years—starting with Angels in the Outfield and bursting to life just recently in work as varied as Inception, The Lookout, and 50 Days of Summer—and in 50/50 he gives a performance that bumps him up into another class of actor. He doesn’t just carry 50/50, he transforms it into another type of film completely. Adam as written is surrogate for Reiser, and as such he’s sometimes more two-dimensional than intended. Gordon-Levitt gets in his headspace though, and never overplays—most Hollywood actors who tackle ‘sick’ roles aim high in the big moments, staging every scene like a struggle with disease. The young actor takes a different tact and makes most of the big confrontations ones with the people around him, or more likely, with himself and his understanding of his situation. There is a grueling and disarming scene in a car towards the end, with Adam screaming, that is powerful and yet completely believable. This is amazing work, all the more so because it stays on the lighter side of human comedy, amping up when circumstances call for it.
As a director, Levine is still coming into his own. His previous movies, Mandy Lane and The Wackness, were not successful in my opinion, but with 50/50 he sees into the heart of the story and commits to it. This isn’t great work from a directorial standpoint, but he shows an uncanny knack for corralling actors into interesting variations. 50/50 has all the structural sophistication of a sitcom, marred by several clumsy tonal shifts, but in its honesty it finds something to hold on to; a mirth and poignancy that feel right for the subject matter. At the same time, that politically correct part of our brain is screaming ‘this is wrong!’ When there’s an early joke leveled about Patrick Swayze you know the flick isn’t going to pull too many punches. When punches are pulled, they haven’t just occurred for the sake of drama.
Hollywood is notorious for avoidance when it comes to hard topics like cancer—they would rather deliver the Hallmark snapshots version than the one closer to reality. 5050 is perched closer to that reality than most, and when it diverts here or there it’s to give us a teensy bit of escapism. To see that sometimes we can walk with confidence through the tunnel as long as a few will help light the way.