Writing a review for 50/50 presents something of a challenge to me. On one hand, I want to rave to high heavens about it; on the other, I don’t want to oversell it. Every word I write, therefore, walks a fine line between setting up unfair expectations that the film can’t hope to meet and under-emphasizing the qualities that make it one of the strongest movies I’ve seen in 2011. If that’s not enough of a hindrance, I must yield an anecdotal admission of bias that partially informs my reaction to the film– 50/50 hits me in a very personal way that renders the events of the final act totally relateable. For those without that sort of experience, it’s possible your mileage may vary.
But 50/50 is made so well, and executed with such earnest emotion and intent, that I’d reckon the odds of this happening are slim to none.This in and of itself is a pleasant surprise; the film’s basic conceit reads like something lifted wholesale from some saccharine made-for-TV-movie designed to generate ratings by preying on the easily-manipulated. And maybe that’s the movie 50/50 could have been if people other than Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, and Jonathan Levine were involved. Between the former two’s involvements in raunch-comedies like Superbad and Knocked Up, and the latter’s in 2008’s incredibly human The Wackness, 50/5o never for a moment risks unraveling into the sort of melodramatic and painfully sentimentalist narrative best reserved for the Hallmark channel.
50/50 follows Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an old-fashioned and somewhat uptight twenty-something living in Seattle whose doctor diagnoses him with a rare form of spinal cancer (which he protests; according to Adam, he doesn’t smoke or drink, and he also recycles). Shouldering the burden of his circumstances, he turns to his friend Kyle (Rogen), his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), and his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) for support, and seeks help from a thoroughly green therapist (Anna Kendrick); as he begins treatment, 50/50 reveals itself to be less concerned with being plot-driven and focuses almost strictly on Adam’s development as a person. There’s an end-goal, definitely, but this is a film that’s more about one man reconciling with his disease and growing through his experiences than it is about getting from point A to point B neatly and briskly– in short, it’s first and foremost a character piece.
But as the picture progresses and Adam’s story is told, it’s quickly apparent that Levine isn’t interested in telling a straightforward tear-jerker meant to tug at heartstrings– instead, he’s mining humor out of his protagonist’s ordeal. For all of its emotional thematic stuff, 50/50 is one of the funniest movies you may see in a theater this year, so long as you’re receptive to the blunt, crude, and unapologetic humor so central to the stylings of Goldberg and Rogen (who both produced the movie along with screenwriter Will Reiser, upon whose life the movie is loosely based), as well as the referentialism which defines so much of not only comedy of today but cinema as a whole (e.g. an absolutely devastating Total Recall reference). 50/50 never shies away from being vulgar (don’t ask Kyle what he really uses that razor for) but there’s something refreshingly upfront about many of the film’s punchlines– whether they’re aimed at Adam’s cancer, his relationships, or anything else– and its general attitude as well. This is thoroughly human material; nothing here is sugarcoated or watered down, from the jokes to the raw emotional beats.
Most of those moments belong to Adam, so it’s fortunate that Levine had the foresight to pick an actor of Gordon-Levitt’s caliber to represent him; the young, rising star has all the qualities of a real leading actor but simultaneously knows how to stay down-to-Earth. There is a risk taken in that Adam reads like a blood relative of Tom, the sad sack hero of (500) Days of Summer, but Gordon-Levitt recognizes that for all their similarities the two men have thoroughly different souls. Here, Gordon-Levitt plays his character as someone who lives based on strict order– he can’t even bring himself to jaywalk early in the morning when the city hasn’t woken up yet– and when the rug is pulled out from underneath him, he’s understandably angry and frustrated and hopeless. He’s also so buttoned up that he doesn’t know how to express those emotions, and either lashes out when people try to help him or otherwise shut them down. It takes some kind of chutzpah to show a man in Adam’s position so nakedly and so honestly, and Gordon-Levitt creates a portrayal that more than honor’s the film’s intentions– he’s simply excellent here.
But as much as this is his show, 50/50 is about more than just how Adam deals with his illness– it’s also about how the people around him react to it. Adam tries to go it alone at first, and affords only Kyle and Rachel opportunities to get close enough to help him while he pushes his mother away rather callously; while she frets and worries and practically begs him to let her care for him, Kyle uses Adam’s illness as a way to score sympathy sex and Rachel more or less continues the trajectory she’s on at the film’s opening. Though the common thread among them is the oft-repeated mantra of “you’re going to be fine”, a banality which yields no comfort to Adam, 50/50‘s cast of characters tend to respond to Adam’s situation in their own ways. Whether they beg to help him or act nonchalant or distance themselves from him, the supporting cast– most of all Rogen, who 50/50 may be utilized better here than in any movie he’s done since Observe and Report, and Kendrick, who can probably corner the market on the awkward-but-charming-and-alluring act by now– stand by Gordon-Levitt with comic and emotional aplomb, doing work that’s uniformly delightful on its own terms but most of all makes Gordon-Levitt look even better.
All the while, Levine filters the proceedings through the same mellow, composed directing style he brought to his last outing, an aesthetic that plays well against his protagonist’s more restrained personality. That relaxed approach may be a big part of why 50/50 is able to avoid feeling hyper-cloying and instead reads as totally genuine; Levine, laid-back and loose yet thoroughly professional, jettisons any preconceived notions or expectations for his material from the word-go and lets his characters do the talking. He doesn’t need to dabble in sap; he knows how to organically get to his emotional beats. Make no mistake, he does so very effectively all without using any cheap tricks to choke us up– because in the end, as hysterical and frank as it may be, 50/50 is the kind of movie that doesn’t need such chicanery to move an audience. That’s a feat unto itself.