With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston; Running Time: 99 minutes; Rated R (for language throughout, sexual content and some drug use); Written by Will Reiser; Directed by Jonathan Levine.
A comedy about cancer? Really? It says something about how far we have come in the battle against this still oft-fatal disease that a film like 50/50 can be done and be done well. After all, where a generation or two ago one barely said the word because it was a death sentence, now there people who are alive and well because medical science has advanced enough to fight back. For some the prognosis is excellent and for some it is bleak. For Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), it is 50/50.
What follows is not simply the story of his treatment and the problems it entails. Instead the focus of the movie is on his relationships. Screenwriter Will Reiser – a cousin of comedian/writer Paul Reiser and himself a cancer survivor – absolutely nails it. For all the goofiness and occasional R-rated language, this is a character driven story where, for the most part, the people seem real.
Gordon-Levitt is superb, ranging from hope to despair to simply trying to deal with how people react to him. His best friend Kyle (played by Reiser’s best friend Seth Rogen), loves his buddy and drives him to his treatments, but also sees his fight against cancer as way for them to pick up girls and score medical marijuana. He seems insensitive at times, but then the script and Rogen’s performance bring out that male bonding requires that honest emotions be expressed by other means. Kyle can’t tell Adam how much he cares. He has to make a joke of it and that’s how he expresses how much he cares.
Anna Kendrick plays Katherine, a student therapist whose job it is to counsel Adam while applying what she has learned. Their relationship sometimes falls into cliché. Yes, of course they are attracted to each other but at least she admits there are ethical issues involved. Yet it also provides some of the film’s great insights. Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is driving him nuts with her need to be involved in his battle with cancer, and he keeps her at arm’s length. It’s Katherine who points out that with his father suffering from Alzheimer’s, his mother is left with two men in her life: one who can barely talk to her and one who refuses to share. It is a moment that brings Adam up short, realizing that in spite of his problems the world doesn’t revolve around him.
The one character that is a caricature is Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is there to be the selfish girlfriend. She is so shallow and self-absorbed that she’s little more than a plot device. By contrast, Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall appear as fellow patients in chemotherapy, and they put Adam’s situation in context. Cancer can strike anyone at any age, and it’s not fair, but you have to play the hand you were dealt.
“50/50” turns out to be an intelligent, mature and often very funny movie about a young man battling cancer and learning something about life. Half a century ago this would have been science fiction or an exercise in bad taste. Today it’s one of the unexpected pleasures of the fall movie season.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.