Cancer is clearly no laughing matter, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen’s new film is an insightful and acutely observed comedy that raises a defiant middle finger to the killer disease, even as its protagonist fears for his life. Written by Rogen’s friend Will Reiser, inspired by his own experiences, 50/50 is the story of Adam (Gordon-Levitt), a responsible, clean-living 27-year-old who visits the doctor for mild back pain, only to be diagnosed with a rare strain of spinal cancer. While his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) opts to leave, Adam’s mother (Angelica Huston) attempts to smother him, resulting in Adam pushing his family away. Only best friend Kyle (Rogen) stays by Adam’s side, refusing to let him wallow in his condition, and even making light of his potentially tragic situation.
In the era of frat boy bromance comedies, which all too often rely on gross-out humour and misogynistic leeriness, audiences have good reason to be wary of a comedy addressing cancer. However, Reiser’s writing clearly speaks from first-hand experience, and many of the observations smack of honesty rather than sentimentality or inappropriate crassness. Marijuana features prominently – this is a Seth Rogen film after all – but is introduced, not by Kyle’s character, but by Phillip Baker Hall as one of Adam’s fellow chemo patients. Sex and dating are also on the agenda, especially after Kyle convinces Adam he can use his condition to attract sympathetic women, but the reality of his illness is never forgotten and the one time he does succeed in getting a girl into bed, Adam must stop because he is in too much pain.
Adam is apathetic to his condition for much of the film, but nevertheless seeks counseling from Katie (Anna Kendrick), a young inexperienced psychologist, and together they muddle through, providing each other with an emotional crutch for their needs. Unsurprisingly the potential for romance materializes, but things remain realistic, helping Adam and the film grounded, so his antics with Kyle don’t spiral out of control. Reiser also ensures that we see the complexity of all Adam’s relationships – especially with his emergency-ready mother, who is already coping with a husband with Alzheimer’s. As Adam’s condition worsens and the very real possibility of death looms ever closer, he attempts to address each of these relationships before its too late.
While to some degree 50/50 must adhere to a traditional romantic comedy structure, including conflict, separation and hopefully a final reconciliation, Jonathan Levine’s delicate direction and Gordon-Levitt’s disarmingly endearing performance ensure that audiences will be nervously gnawing at their fingernails alongside Adam’s family and friends come the film’s incredibly emotional finale. A special mention should also be given to the film’s soundtrack that incorporates the music of Radiohead and Pearl Jam to winning effect. 50/50 is a wonderfully fresh take on the “cancer movie” that is funny, moving and incredibly life-affirming, but most importantly of all, displays the utmost respect for its subject matter and an acute understanding of our fragile mortality.