50/50 (2011) Review

Laughing in the face of death is one of the greatest acts of defiance. 50/50 gets audiences doing just that with its compelling story of friendships, romances and a family put to the test when one young member is diagnosed with life-threatening cancer. While the comedy is sometimes macabre, the film never underestimates the gravity of the situation, and the emotional payoff at the end is well worth the journey.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a promising life. He has a good job, sexy girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), loyal best friend (Seth Rogan) and ever-worrying mother (Anjelica Huston). His life is significantly shortened when he’s diagnosed with a rare cancer near his spine that gives him 50:50 odds at surviving. With Death’s hand on his shoulder and with the help of his new therapist (Anna Kendrick), Adam is forced to reevaluate everything in his life, including his closest relationships and how he perceives them.

It’s easy to assume that a film that tries to approach cancer with humor is going to be an emotional rollercoaster. If 50/50 falls in that category, then it wouldn’t be a traditional rollercoaster since it saves its biggest dip for the very end. Excellent direction, wonderful acting and a well-chosen soundtrack will transmit the worry and fear directly into audiences’ bosoms. While there are definitely moments to laugh at, be prepared to deal with sniffles as much as unflattering snorts.

In reality, cancer is no laughing matter and those who are, have been or know someone who is afflicted by it understand this better than anyone else. So if a film is going to take a humorous approach to cancer, then it has to strike the right tone. By and large, the film accomplishes that rather well due in large part to smart casting with Seth Rogan. It’s difficult to tell how much of what he says in the film was actually written in the script since the words seem to flow so naturally from him, but it’s safe to say that fans of Rogan’s sense of humor will find plenty to laugh at here. He seems to know exactly when to reverse himself or throw away a line to take the edge off a literally deadly serious matter.

With that said, some of the comedy can be inappropriate. One scene features Adam – high on marijuana baked into macaroons – stumbling through the hallways of the hospital cancer ward with a smile on his face. He tries to stifle his laugh when a corpse is wheeled past him by an orderly. Perhaps this scene illustrates Adam’s state-of-mind in that he hasn’t accepted his circumstances yet, but since there is no internalization of this scene later on, it awkwardly – if momentarily – renders Adam unsympathetic to a large degree.

While it’s hard to say exactly how much Rogan is acting, the rest of the cast is top-notch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wonderful in this role, showcasing high crests and deep valleys of emotion. His performance towards the end of the film when Adam realizes he’s out of time will touch a deep part of every viewer’s soul. There’s also excellent chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick. The evolution of their relationship from stiff doctor/patient to comfortable friends feels natural and realistic. Of course, Anjelica Huston is always wonderful, delivering the most nuanced performance of the cast and doing the most acting in the least amount of time.

Overall, the writing is good, but 50/50 is inspired by a true story and it feels that way. Sometimes the plot seems to meander with scenes neither pushing the story forward nor revealing more about the characters. Nevertheless, the individual scenes work on their own and are interesting to watch, like when Adam is given his diagnosis by a doctor who won’t even look at him or when Anna Kendrick’s character, Kathy, doesn’t know how to treat Adam except with textbook methods. It isn’t perfect, but stitch the scenes together and audiences get an intimate look at what definitely feels like real life.