Cancer sucks. Plain and simple. By now, many films have taken on cancer as a way of toying with the audience’s emotions. However, I find that many cancer movies do not know how to be subtle while still being heartfelt. They can get ridiculously sappy and melodramatic, and completely drown out the true emotional struggles that come with cancer. 50/50 not only has brutal honesty and sincerity in its portrayal of cancer but it also adds the right dosage of comedy.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a writer for a public radio station in Seattle who has a pretty smooth life. He starts to feel intense back pain and decides to go see a doctor about it. It turns out that he has a rare form of cancer in his spine. This rare form of cancer has a 50% rate of surviving and we see how the people close to Adam are affected by this horrible situation. Will Reiser, the screenwriter for 50/50, based the film off of his own real-life experience of battling cancer. Seth Rogen, who plays Adam’s friend, Kyle, in the movie, is the real-life friend of Will Reiser, so Rogen implemented some of his own experiences into the film as well.
50/50 takes on a challenging way of approaching its subject matter by being a comedy drama. The biggest problem with a lot of comedy dramas is that they do not know how to balance the two sides of the spectrum. At moments they will try to make you laugh your eyes out and other moments they will try to make you cry your eyes out. The sudden shifts in emotion and tone are distracting and awkward. The film almost starts to feel bipolar. 50/50 manages to blend comedy and drama beautifully. This was Reiser’s first screenplay but I can tell that he is an extremely talented writer. He structures 50/50 like an efficient sitcom but always adds an underlying sense of truthfulness and realism. The screenplay undoubtedly benefits from not only Reiser’s own experience with cancer but with his experience in TV writing which is what gives 50/50 its American sitcom feeling. The dialogue between Adam and Kyle after Adam’s cancer diagnosis is witty and delivered at the pacing of a screwball comedy. However, the comedy isn’t ironic or sarcastic at all which helps the film retain its truthful tone. The way the film manages to show cancer in a comedic and hopeful light is inspiring for people who are trying to go through hard times in life, no matter what it is. If I ran the Academy, I would’ve given Reiser a nomination for best original screenplay.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an amazing performance and proved to me with this film that he is a highly capable actor. What makes his performance so great in 50/50 are not the big comedic scenes, although they are great as well, but instead the little nuances he gives in his facial and body expressions. The way he forcefully says “I’m fine”, the way he stumbles on his words when talking about his girlfriend, the way he slowly gets more accustomed to speaking to his therapist, all these small actions reveal what kind of a person he is. Not only that, during the emotional climax of Adam’s character arch, Gordon-Levitt is talented enough to not let that pivotal moment feel artificial. It’s a masterful performance.
The supporting cast is fantastic as well. Seth Rogen to me is either hit or miss. Sometimes his obscenity can be hilarious like in Knocked Up and in Pineapple Express but other times it just feels offensive like in The Green Hornet and The Guilt Trip. Luckily, gives a great performance in 50/50. He acts as the polar opposite of Gordon-Levitt’s character. Rogen is vulgar and loud-mouthed as usual but delivers it all with charm. During the film’s more dramatic and emotional scenes, he is able to control himself from being a total doofus. Anjelica Huston is excellent as Adam’s mother. Her character is the stereotypical worried mother but Huston adds enough heart to her performance to avoid from being just a “supporting” character. Her reaction to Adam’s cancer is one of the keystones to how we see the people around Adam are affected by his cancer.
Perhaps, the part I treasure the most about 50/50 is its third act. A recent trend for comedy films is the tendency to make the third act emotionally wrenching. Even great comedies, such as Frank, have suffered from this. Jonathan Levine’s direction has expertly pulled 50/50 out of that pitfall. Not only does the ending feel right, it freaking knocks you down as if a giant wave of emotions has just crashed onto you. Each scene leading up to Adam’s climactic surgery builds the characters more and more, preparing us for the emotional and character depth that is revealed towards the end.
50/50 is a breath of fresh air from the overload of poorly made comedies and cancer-related tragedies. 50/50 walks on the thin tightrope of being too light or too offensive, offering a film that perfectly portrays the pain of cancer while still making us laugh and smile along the way. I am giving 50/50 an A+.
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