By Dave Wilson | September 29, 2011
Director: Jonathan Levine
Writer: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Serge Houde, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall
Guys, we’ve all had days that start out like this one. You’re in the shower and you run out of shampoo, but wait, everything’s cool. Your girlfriend (or wife) has plenty, so you pour some of hers into your palm and scrub away, and everything’s fine—until your best friend takes a whiff and says you smell like you screwed the cast of The View.
This is exactly how Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s day begins in director Jonathan Levine’s new film 50/50, only, once his buddy, Kyle (Seth Rogen) finishes trashing him, his day goes from moderately frustrating to unbearably surreal. For yes, Gordon-Levitt’s Adam might have a kick-ass job at Seattle Public Radio, an adoring girlfriend, and a loyal, trash-talking buddy he’s known since high school, but he can still find himself sitting in a doctor’s office getting an inscrutable, jargon-laced diagnosis for his back pain which includes the words spinal and sarcoma. Adam fumbles for words, his face breaks into a smile. “That’s crazy,” he says. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I recycle!”
Nevertheless, Adam has a malignant tumor along his spine with a fifty percent survival rate. Less than ten, if it metastasizes.
Yes, 50/50 is a film about a 27-year old with cancer. It is also one of the funniest films of the year.
How is this possible? I’m still not sure. But somehow this film strikes a balance that I’ve never seen before. Every detail, every scene and set-piece spins something grim and unflinching into a crude, hilarious, and profound account of Adam’s effort to confront this diagnosis on a daily basis. This movie has the kind of big laughs and crass, sexist humor you might find in a Judd Apatow movie. There are insults, one-liners, and outbursts so ridiculous that you may laugh hard enough to fracture a rib. But 50/50 also has the courage to point out the patently absurd in Adam’s daily effort to survive.
Look at the way Adam breaks the news to his clinging, Type A mother (Anjelica Huston) over wine at the dinner table. His opener? “Mom, have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?”
Or consider these reactions. Best friend Kyle: “Fifty-fifty? It’s not that bad! If you were a casino game, you’d have the best odds!” And so for Kyle, Adam’s cancer becomes a sure-proof way to pick up chicks. This is not a one-liner. In fact, there’s a hilarious stretch of scenes where Kyle and Adam, now bald and wearing a knit cap, put this theory to the test in bars and bookstores. It is possible, we learn, to mention the cancer too soon.
Then there’s Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a self-involved painter who’s so unprepared for the role of caretaker that she buys Adam a dog. Not just any dog, but a moping, sad-eyed former race dog named Skeletor. The scene gets a laugh, but we also sense that she’s preparing the way for her own inevitable vanishing act.
Now we get a blow-by-blow account of Adam’s suffering and treatment, but in a way that always undermines that old cliché about the nobility of suffering. When Adam turns up for his first round of chemotherapy, he meets two good-natured older gents, Mitch (Matt Frewer) and Alan (Philip Baker Hall) who pass him a tin of macaroons. “There’s weed in ‘em!” Alan says. Yeah, these guys are stoned out of their minds. Adam says he doesn’t do weed, and in a wonderful inversion of the old high school peer pressure trope, the old man thrusts the macaroons under his nose. “Come on,” he shouts. “Get high with us, man!”
Moments later, Adam is weaving down the hospital corridors in slow motion with slit eyes and a goofy, stoned smile on his lips. The camera glides and lurches as Adam’s gaze takes in the gurneys, the patients, and the weeping family members. He’s nodding and everything’s groovy. Then an orderly wheels past with a body bag and Adam waits a beat, sputters, and—this is so right—breaks into a fit of laughter. Somehow this sequence captures everything you need to know about the off-kilter, but brutally honest tone of the whole film.
And yet there is nothing sacrilegious or disrespectful about this take on cancer. This is the kind of perspective and eye for detail that only a survivor might have. Screenwriter Will Reiser was 24 when he was diagnosed with the same form of spinal cancer he’s given his hero, Adam. So we are there for the chemo and the hair loss (“Dude, what do you use this razor for anyway?”), the midnight nausea, and the droves of well meaning people whose soul-crushing words of sympathy do more harm than good.
If we look beyond the grim details—and there are plenty—50/50 is also a remarkably astute and heartfelt look at friendship. You see, Adam and Kyle also have each other. I’m still shaking my head at the genius of casting Rogen and Gordon-Levitt together, who have such extraordinary chemistry as best friends, with Gordon-Levitt as the straight man, of course, and Rogen as the foul-mouthed badass who will do anything for his buddy. Kyle may be crude and self-involved, he might use Adam’s illness to pick up women, but he never leaves Adam’s side. Maybe one of the things that Adam needs most is a friend who doesn’t flinch—who doesn’t back off, put up a wall, or change his behavior. There is a scene late in the film when Adam drives a smashed, drunk-off-his ass Kyle safely home and learns something about the depths of his buddy’s devotion that will put a lump in your throat and threaten your very ability to breathe.
50/50 isn’t just about existing friendships, but also about how new relationships might help to fill the void. And so we meet Adam’s naive, inexperienced therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick) who’s still in training and clearly out of her depth. She wants to label every stage that Adam’s going through (“This is normal. You’re experiencing alienation”), which unfortunately, has the effect of alienating him! Katherine also has an awkward habit of suddenly touching Adam’s arm in a way that is either supportive or creepy. But when she goes off script, you see genuine empathy in her words and manner. We witness the beginning of something—a connection or an understanding. Whatever it is, this film has the courage to show how this friendship marks them both.
A few words about the performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt nails this movie. After a string of films that has included Mysterious Skin, Brick, (500) Days of Summer, Inception, and Hesher, I can’t wait to see how his career progresses. Here his performance feels so effortless and natural. He can do the comedy, and it’s always fluid and offhand, just an offshoot of his own personality. But you can also see the fear in his eyes and the rage, even when he’s smiling. Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is also outstanding as Katherine, a role that requires her to be vulnerable, empathetic, and awkward, as Katherine navigates a range of disparate emotions while struggling to reconcile her personal and professional values. Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen, and yet he continues to be one of the funniest actors in film. I think his casting here is more subversive than calculated.
For me, director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser have created a crude comedy/cancer movie mash-up that works precisely because the humor draws us in and sets us up. When we laugh this hard and this often, we lower our guard so that the deeper emotions resonating through Adam’s journey completely mow us over. Just like that tin of macaroons.