Jonathan Levine is a brave director. There aren’t many people out there who are fearless enough to make a comedy with cancer as the subject. Cries of insensitivity would be thrown squarely at the directors shoulders if the script wasn’t wrote by a cancer survivor. Reiser has based 50/50, named after the chances of survival, on his experiences with the disease. Adam (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a well-adjusted guy in his mid-20’s with a steady job in Radio and awkward relationship with Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), only to find out he has a rare strain of the killer disease in his back.
Terms of Endearment is referenced by Adam when he awkwardly tries to break the news to his mother and that film is the typical example of this breed of drama. 50/50 couldn’t be more different to the ‘chick flick” tropes the genre is known for. It still deals with terminal illness and the drama therein; Levine’s film is about the tragedy of the disease, ultimately though this is an entertaining film.
The story places more value in the mental state of a cancer sufferer from the early days of disbelief and utmost shock to later on when the cancer has taken firm hold and Adam starts to lose hope. The fact that this is a comedy presents such a story that has relevance to so many people in a way that isn’t constantly seeking to make its audience cry. While that fate may be inescapable for a ‘weepie’, Will Reiser’s script is elevated above expectations of the genre in its depiction of the support network from Adam’s estranged mother played by Anjelica Houston, his best friend Kyle played by Seth Rogen, his therapist, Katherine, played by Anna Kendrick and his girlfriend played by Bryce Dallas Howard who was previously diabolically evil in the help. If she keeps up roles like this, she is in danger of being typecast.
Comedic it might be, but the subject is never treats with anything less than the respect it deserves. As with any film that has Seth Rogen in the cast list, the humour comes from pop culture and crude sexual references. Contrary to expectations he doesn’t suffocate the film, which is down to his supporting role (in multiple contexts) and that he was Will Reiser’s friend when he was going through this. He is replicating his own role from reality to fiction.
As well as jokes coming from typical topics of conversation for twenty something’s there are two scenes which offer humour in moments of personal tragedy. Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel, has a thankless role as a horrible girlfriend and when he she dumped for outwardly expressing her inability to cope with cancer, Kyle takes Adam out on town to use the cancer as a pity card to get sex. The awkward social graces in this scene are fun, rather than the source of pity. The other scene is when Adam – a teetotaller – smokes weed to distract him from the pain of the chemo. The after-effects of which are shot with an impressively hazy visual effect that captures the feeling of intoxication perfectly.
Otherwise it is down to Seth Rogen to provide the comic drive and not being a fan of the man, I wasn’t sure about what to expect from his role and in all honesty this is a career high performance that perfectly balances the comedy and drama. His role is there to support Adam when everybody else fails and he does that through the usual bromantic means. There is a clear and discernible affection for his friend even if he can’t express himself without coming across as selfish until the climactic and emotionally crippling final 10 minutes. During this final run in we also see the accumulation of all the awkward moments between Levitt and Kendrick as well an awkward relationship with his parents.
Ludicrous situations might be aplenty yet 50/50 is never acted with anything other than restraint, no matter what the role or actor. The real selling point is Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance, while it may be true that his character is bland and cancer becomes a substitute for his personality, however observing Adam fall to pieces emotionally and mentally is both riveting and emotionally harrowing, all thanks to yet another flawless performance from Levitt.
While nothing I can say will dissuade those who find 50/50 to be in poor taste, those that aren’t offended will find a thoroughly modern comedy that meshes together the slacker comedy and weepie, while being far more than the sum its parts. A final word of warning, best bring a box of tissues – you will cry.