Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston
Director: Jonathan Levine
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
50/50 is a movie that has every opportunity to go wrong. The story of 28-year-old Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) coming down with a rare form of cancer could easily have gone the Lifetime channel route, full of mawkish tear jerking and deathbed confessionals. On the other hand, the fact that the film (loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s real life), is produced and co-stars Seth Rogen, means that this also has the potential for a vulgar comedy with handy life lessons wedged in, (think Judd Apatow vehicles like Knocked Up, Superbad, or perhaps more appropriately, Funny People). There is nothing more convenient in terms of audience empathy as a lead character dying of a terminal disease, and factor in one of the most likeable actors on the planet (Levitt), and one gets the impression that this will be a Hollywood weepie dressed in indie-chic garb.
Indeed, for the first 30-minutes or so, 50/50 seems to revel in its Apatow-inspired appreciation for crass conversations and slice of life normality. Adam has an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), a slacker best friend (Rogen), a worrywart mother (Anjelica Huston), and a toothless boss that doesn’t take his work in radio seriously. He’s your typical nice guy, intelligent but lacking confidence, and the movie’s early moments set up his key relationships rather predictably. Likewise, while there is decidedly less of his pothead shtick here than in something like Pineapple Express, the character of Kyle is essentially a riff on the same shmuck Rogen has been playing for years now. At first, his annoying wisecracks feel forced into a movie that more or less seems to be playing things straight, but as 50/50 progresses, the interplay between him and Levitt grows into something approaching tenderness. Howard, meanwhile, is saddled with the typical “hipster girlfriend” role in which she goes from concern over Adam’s diagnosis to outright bitch status when it’s clear that his condition is getting worse. Howard is a good actress and imbues the part with more complexity than expected, but it still smacks a little of a writers’ ploy to endear the audience even more to Adam’s plight. But assured direction by Jonathan Levine (who got some indie buzz from his 2008 debut The Wackness) and Reiser’s smart script fends off sentimentality.
One of the film’s key strengths is its ability to take situations that seem utterly predictable and then tweak them. Huston’s role as the worrying mother is a prime example of this. A dinner table scene where Adam reveals he has cancer, for example, at first seems like it will be played for laughs, but there is a heartbreaking honesty to the way Huston reacts to the news that hits the gut. Additionally, as soon as a young and inexperienced therapist played by Anna Kendrick shows up helping Adam through his contradictory feelings about having cancer, the audience knows exactly how things will turn out between them. And yet, partly because of Kendrick’s superbly underplayed performance, and also because the dialogue scenes between the two feel so raw and honest, the movie is able to get away with such familiarity. There are also lovely extended cameos by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as fellow cancer victims that hit all the right notes of humor and sadness, and an amazingly powerful scene near the end where Adam is about to go in for a major operation will leave audiences reaching for their tissue boxes. But even here, at the closing moments, the movie earns its tears rather than forcing the issue, and much of this has to do with Levitt’s sympathetic portrayal. The talented young actor continues his winning streak (coming after 500 Days of Summer, Inception, and Hesher), and his take on Adam’s emotional ups and downs is so effortless that his performance may very well be overlooked. One never catches him acting or descending into Oscar-baiting grandstanding. It is a great performance.
50/50 overcomes the odds (pun intended) and adeptly mixes humor and heartbreak, refusing to soft-pedal the realities of the subject matter, but at the same time never dragging itself into a marathon of depressing melodrama. It is one of the year’s true surprises.