It’s not often that you hear the words “cancer” and “comedy” in the same breathe. After all, cancer is a heartbreakingly serious illness, and it would be insensitive to mine the topic for cheap laughs. Enter 2011’s 50/50, a wonderful film which manages to extract humour from situations that occur due to cancer while at the same time treating the delicate subject seriously and with utmost sensitivity. How is it possible to make people laugh without being insensitive? How can tears be wrung without being mawkish? How can filmmakers make people laugh and cry without feeling calculated? It’s such a daunting proposition that even the most skilled writer wouldn’t even dare to try it. And yet, 50/50 – which was written by an actual cancer survivor – succeeds at these ostensibly impossible goals, making the process of combining honest-to-goodness laughs with fatiguing emotion look incredibly easy.
Public radio writer Adam (Gordon-Levitt) is just a regular young guy; he exercises frequently, he avoids drugs and smoking, and he generally lives his life in a straight and sensible fashion. Dating beautiful modern artist Rachael (Dallas Howard) and not even thirty yet, Adam becomes numbed with shock when he’s diagnosed with a form of spinal cancer which requires chemotherapy. As his intensive treatment begins, Adam seeks comfort from slacker friend Kyle (Rogen) and student therapist Katie (Kendrick) while Rachael finds herself ill-equipped to deal with such a tragic state of affairs.
On the surface, 50/50 sounds like superficial movie-of-the-week territory – the type that disregards subtlety to jerk as many tears as possible without earning the privilege. But writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine eschewed such easy routes, deciding against stereotypes and intrusive musical cues in favour of a more effectively understated approach, trusting in the saddening reality of the situation and the sympathetic, endearing characters to give the film its emotion. Yes, 50/50 makes you cry, but the emotional responses come as the result of real heartbreaking events rather than a heavy-handed score. Nothing is more affecting than playing on the universally relatable love between mother and son, or the daunting reality check which comes when an amiable person dies. As Reiser based the script on his own experience with cancer, the picture possesses a phenomenal lived-in quality that’s rarely matched. Yet, the film is also able to skilfully navigate from pathos to unforced comedy. And none of the humour is cheap; laughs are gleaned as a result of genuinely witty character interaction. All of the laughs are well-judged, with Levine and Reiser maintaining a bright spirit amid the sadness, capturing both the light and the dark of this depressing situation.
Admittedly, 50/50 could only end one of two ways and it has a few clichéd surface details, and this fools us into perhaps thinking that the film is less skilful than it is. But it’s the storytelling and Reiser’s screenwriting which allows the film to feel entirely believable rather than a retread of familiar territory. Adam’s mother (Huston) overreacts to everything, Adam’s father (Houde) suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and there’s a love interest subplot, yet all of it fits into the story naturally and nothing is overplayed. Indeed, the dramatic structure is practically invisible. It’s also fortunate that Levine’s direction is perfectly-judged. 50/50 is not a drab, one-note drama – unexpectedly, it’s eminently enjoyable and watchable all the way through; a testament to Reiser’s engaging writing and the agreeable tone devised by Levine.
In the lead role of Adam, Joseph Gordon-Levitt again shows that he’s one of the best young actors working in the industry today, and he comes across as the most human he’s ever been in a movie. Gordon-Levitt was up to the challenge of tackling every aspect of this multifaceted character, effortlessly mixing detachment and vulnerability to play a regular guy unexpectedly confronted with his own mortality. The actor’s dramatic scenes are especially raw and heart-wrenching. Fortunately, Gordon-Levitt shares excellent chemistry with Seth Rogen, who was friends with writer Will Reiser for years and was literally asked to play himself here. Rogen never stretches his abilities as an actor here, yet he’s never been more believable and mature on-screen, proving that he can handle both serious and comedic material. The banter between Rogen and Gordon-Levitt positively sparkles, too. In the supporting cast, Anna Kendrick is sweetly endearing as nervous young therapist Katie, and Bryce Dallas Howard makes for a believable Rachael. Anjelica Huston is another scene-stealer as Adam’s mother, and anyone with a mum will be amazed by how authentic she seems. Small joys are also derived from Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer playing a pair of cancer patients who befriend Adam in the hospital.
Instead of leaving you worn out and depressed, 50/50 will leave you with a good feeling. And it doesn’t achieve this through cheap, manipulative methods; it’s earned with honesty. The film is both a powerful drama that’ll make you laugh and a skilful comedy that’ll make you cry, but it at no point feels tonally schizophrenic or uneven. The cast is flawless and the writing & direction is superlative, showing that it’s possible to make a thoroughly engaging picture about a lead character with cancer.