By Roxana Hadadi
It would probably be safe to guess that no other movie about cancer has been funny. And yet we have “50/50,” something of a tragic comedy, that’s funnier than most things so far this year and more saddening, too, an impressive work from writer Will Reiser … who actually had cancer a few years ago.
Drawing from his own experiences, Reiser — who is good friends with the film’s co-star, Seth Rogen — delivers a poignant, emotional and altogether triumphant look at how to deal with something you never thought could happen to you. And then it does.
Life, it seems, is as bizarrely uncomplicated, as unfairly venomous, as something that simple.
Twenty-seven-year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems like a pretty healthy guy: He goes jogging every day. He also seems like a pretty nice guy: He puts aside a drawer for his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a painter who is beautiful but seemingly disconnected from Adam — when he tells her “it made more sense” to provide her with a place for her things, she seems both flattered and horrified. And, of course, for a seemingly fit, put-together guy like Adam, there’s his bombastic, shrill, a little unkempt and a little crazy best friend Kyle (Rogen), who works with him at the local radio station and gives him rides to work every day. They seem like the kind of friends who were exceptionally close once, and then life got in the way, but because of some clinging to the past — sentiment? memories? — they haven’t fully let each other go yet.
And it’s clear, of course, that they shouldn’t, when Adam suddenly learns at a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment that the recent pain in his back isn’t a sprain from running but actually a tumor, an aggressive cancer that means Adam only has a 50/50 survival rate. With a four-month regimen of chemotherapy ahead of him and the frightening, very real odds that things may not work out, Adam slowly, methodically attempts to deal. He tells Rachael, offering her a way out of the relationship before things get too tough. He tells his parents, a move that inspires his mother (Anjelica Houston) to offer to move in, much to his chagrin. And he tells Kyle, reinvigorating their friendship in an unexpected way: “Lance Armstrong, he keeps getting it,” Kyle says when urging Adam to keep positive about his chances. “If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds.”
Isn’t life just a big game, anyway? Aren’t we all moving around like pieces on a chess board, confident we have our own free will and our own decisions, until something terrible happens — until something completely out of your control occurs — and you realize maybe you’re not as powerful as you thought? “50/50” never gets preachy or that solemn, but when Adam is forced to start meeting with therapist Dr. Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick), barely 24 years old and dealing with Adam as one of her first patients, those are the weighty ideas he has to consider. Yet all along the way, as Adam weakly attempts to fend off his mother’s overprotectiveness and struggles to keep his relationship with Rachael going, Kyle’s there, to offer up his body trimmer so Adam can shave his head, to drive him to the doctor, to hang out with him when he’s too tired to do anything else. It’s their friendship that’s the emotional core of “50/50,” a bromance that gives weight and legitimacy to a word we’ve heard too often in the shadow of “The Hangover” and its 2011 summer sequel.
The film wouldn’t succeed if it were all Rogen’s goofy gags or Gordon-Levitt’s solemn desperation, and instead it strikes a reassuring balance between the two: We’re able to laugh at Kyle’s and Adam’s experiences with medicinal marijuana, but Adam’s conversations with Dr. McKay about his condition and thoughts about the future temper the high silliness. Rogen, much like his previous role as the shlubby but well-meaning Ben in “Knocked Up,” provides his silly sidekick with good intentions, and his chemistry with Gordon-Levitt is one of the film’s greatest assets.
And Gordon-Levitt, so good as a demented weirdo earlier this year in “Hesher,” is nuanced and wonderful as a man just trying to take it day by day. “I look like Voldemort,” he says after he shaves his head, and those pop culture references keep his character believable. In another vein, his interactions with Kendrick as his therapist, a relationship beginning in his doubt about her age and growing into something more, are some of the film’s most realistic — and another layer to a story that could have just been tears and drug jokes.
“50/50” is ultimately the kind of film we haven’t really seen before: We’re used to mopey romances about young people about to die, like last week’s “Restless,” but this comedy-tragedy mixing is so far removed from that kind of self-serious experiment that they’re not even in the same Hollywood. “50/50” occupies its own glorious, exemplary corner — one with an overwhelmingly high survival rate.