Taking a step back and looking at this situation from an external point of view, I can’t believe that I’m writing an entry on a comedic film about cancer. I can’t believe somebody made a film in which a man in his early 20s is diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, and made the film a comedy. Most of all, I can’t believe that I’m recommending such a film. I could never have conceived of this scenario a year ago, and yet here we are.
50/50 is a prime example of how, given extreme care and thought in the execution, any premise can be made into an enjoyable movie. This is a film in which (possibly) terminal cancer can be used as a catalyst for humorous situations, but never in a way that feels insulting or undermines the enormity of the situation. The secret is that screenwriter Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine brilliantly designed the tragedy and the comedy so that they’re two sides of the same coin. In this case, that coin is the theme of denial.
Take our main character, for example. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a guy who jogs regularly, eats right, doesn’t smoke, etc. He never even learned how to drive, for fear of how many automobile accidents happen every day. And then some freak genetic defect causes an unusually rare form of cancer. After the brief initial shock of this news, Adam proceeds to go about his chemotherapy, insisting that everything is perfectly fine.
This provides comedy on one level, as Adam acts as a sounding board against all the heightened and misguided attempts at sympathizing with him and giving advice. On another level, it provides a modicum of suspense. JGL manages to play the character so completely straight-faced that it’s impossible to tell if he’s apathetic about the news, ignorant about his chances of survival, flat-out lying to himself, or whatever else have you. He’s in denial, and his entire character arc is about coming to the realization that he’s been in denial this whole time. This is where the drama and tragedy come into play. Seriously, when the third act begins and the stakes become inescapable, there’s nothing left to do but stand back and watch JGL bring the house down.
Another great demonstration of the denial theme is Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard). Here’s a character who wants to take care of Adam, firmly dedicating herself to the job and entirely convinced that she’s up to the task, only to prove herself spectacularly unable to pass muster. Here’s a character who keeps insisting and believing that she’s a decent human being, strong enough to handle the emotional burden of caring for a loved one with cancer, even in the face of airtight proof that she isn’t. This character would have been a two-dimensional bitch in any other movie, and I applaud Bryce Dallas Howard for bringing some sympathy and moral ambiguity to the role, but I’m with Seth Rogen’s character on this one. After what she does… no. Just no.
Oh, that reminds me: Seth Rogen’s in this movie. He plays Kyle, Adam’s co-worker and best friend. Kyle’s schtick is that he coaches Adam toward using the diagnosis as a way to score some medicinal marijuana and get chicks into bed. Some characters think that Kyle is just using Adam as a means to his own juvenile ends. Others think that Kyle is just spinning something positive out of a negative situation. Personally, I think that Kyle is a very useful device to remind Adam that he is, in fact, a sexually active man in his 20s with a need to have fun while he’s still alive.
I don’t have a problem with this angle, nor do I necessarily have a problem with the resulting jokes about sex and drugs. I don’t even hate the character all that much. Instead, my problem is with Seth Rogen. Because he co-produced this movie with long-time colleague Evan Goldberg, there was naturally very little pressure for Rogen to go outside his comfort zone. The end result is that Kyle was basically made into a carbon copy of so many other roles that Rogen has played in recent memory. Rogen does get a few funny moments and his interplay with JGL is serviceable, but more often than not, his loud and cocksure brand of humor clashes terribly with the quiet and subtly awkward comedy used in the rest of the film.
For an example of the latter, consider Adam’s mother, played by a barely-recognizable Anjelica Huston. Here’s a character who is overprotective to an absurd degree. We never learn if it’s remotely possible for Diane to singlehandedly care for her cancer-ridden son on top of caring for her Alzheimer’s-ridden husband, but just the fact that she’d try is as touching as it is insane. Anyway, the humor comes from Diane’s aggressive attempts at ensuring her son’s health, all of which fall on Adam’s desperate refusals. Then of course, the drama comes when Adam sees through his own denials and annoyances to finally realize just how much his mom has been hurting. It really is lovely to watch when it happens.
Then we’ve got Mitch (Matt Frewer), and Alan (Philip Baker Hall). These two are cancer patients who go through chemotherapy with Adam, basically acting as his de facto support group. These three have some moments involving medical marijuana, standard guy talk, and so on, all of which are very funny. But at the same time, these are cancer patients, and they beautifully provide the tragedy that really sets the third act in motion.
Last but not least is Adam’s love interest, Katherine (Anna Kendrick, who’s definitely one of my celebrity crushes). She’s the psychiatrist assigned by the hospital to help Adam through his cancer treatment. The bad news is that she isn’t a full psychiatrist, just a doctoral student working on her dissertation. She’s a character with a lot of learning to do, but unlike pretty much every other character in this film, she isn’t in denial about this. Even if she doesn’t entirely know what her limitations are, she’s at least willing to accept them and admit that she has them. Kendrick is adorably good at playing her character’s insecurities, and she has great chemistry with JGL. Additionally, Adam and Katherine end up learning a lot from each other, and the romance arc isn’t so rushed that it ends in a way that feels contrived. Put more simply, the subplot works.
Really, the screenplay as a whole (written by an actual young cancer survivor, by the way) is quite remarkable. The pacing is solid, the dialogue is good, and the character development is wonderful throughout. There’s a particular subplot about a volcano that was very clever and nicely effective, even if the timing of its pay-off was a little too convenient. But really, the greatest strength of the screenplay is also the greatest strength of the movie at large: Its balance between comedy and tragedy. Even during the climax, right when the tension and drama is thick enough to cut with a scalpel, the film is still good enough to provide a quiet scene of comedy relief where it’s needed most.
At all times, 50/50 is very true to its title: It’s half sad and half funny, in such a way that it miraculously manages to be both. No matter how lowbrow the humor gets, the film always keeps a laser-sharp focus on such themes as alienation, denial, and the conflicting urges to accept and refuse help. Though Seth Rogen is definitely the weak link in this cast, the actors all do a stellar job of helping us laugh at these characters even as we sympathize with them. JGL does a particularly amazing job at playing calm denial as well as terrified rage, and I have to give props to any actor willing to shave himself bald on camera. That’s dedication to the craft, and no mistake.
Bottom line: This may not be a film that makes you laugh out loud, but it’s nevertheless an elegantly crafted film with humor, heart, and intelligence. Definitely recommended.