You know what isn’t hilarious? Cancer, that’s what. Yet for some reason the “Cancer Comedy” has almost become a genre in recent years. I believe it must stem from our desire to find humour in the most dire of situations. Humour can be a defence mechanism for dealing with a painful event. With that in mind there’s only one way a film about someone suffering the effects of cancer can manage to provide a laugh. It has to have characters you care about enough for you to want to find that humour. Does 50/50 manage this? Click the link for my review.
50/50 stars that kid from Third Rock From The Sun as an adult called Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt I should say) who’s a risk averse healthy young man that has just found out that the back pain he’s been experiencing is a rare type of spinal cancer. One with lots of syllables, so you know it’s bad. He gives his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard) a chance to back out of their young relationship so she won’t have to deal with his illness but she chooses to accept. Meanwhile his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) seems to be more concerned with trying to use Adam’s illness as a chance to score chicks. Part of Adam’s treatment involves therapy classes with an inexperienced doctor in training called Katherine (Anna Kendrick). The film follows Adam as he attempts to deal with his cancer and the effect it has on his life and that of the people around him.
The film plays mostly straight with the comedy element being introduced only in the moments where it can fit naturally. The film flirts with the sort of zany escapades you’d expect of less tastefully made film but instead of degrading itself to distasteful levels it maintains a level of realism. In one scene Adam, who’s never taken drugs in his life, eats weed laced coconut macaroons with a few fellow patients who he gradually becomes friends with. Instead of some crazy comedy tripping sequence we just get Adam walking through the hospital is a foggy haze as feels relaxed for the first time in weeks. Another sequence involves Adam and Kyle trying to pull a few girls at a bar but rather than being a series of pratfalls and crude events we instead get a few scenes showing Adam trying to maintain a normal life and testing his own personal acceptance of his cancer in order for a chance to have a few moments of happiness. None of these sequences are played for laughs but instead show us the changes in Adam’s mentality and even the effect his illness is having on him physically.
What really makes 50/50 work is it’s honesty and sincerity. The film’s screenwriter, Will Reiser, had himself gone through cancer and so wrote this film as an attempt to vocalise his own experiences. This is what gives the film it’s truthfulness. Adam and Kyle feel like genuine fleshed out real people because they pretty much are. In fact Seth Rogen is, for once, playing himself for a good reason as he is a real life friend of Will Reiser and played the same role for Will when he had cancer. The film manages to draw you right into the lives of its characters in such a way that the film’s final third could well be a very tough sequence of scenes to get through. At some point in the final act you will feel some sort of emotion that will remind you of a lost one or a time when someone you knew was going through a similar scenario and this is all down to how believable Adam and Kyle are as people. Adam has a strained relationship with his mother (Angelica Huston) and like a lot of young adults doesn’t talk to her as often as he probably should. Near the end Adam is due to go into surgery for a potentially life threatening operation and I’ll admit that as he was trying to say goodbye to his mother it got to me a fair bit as I never got to say goodbye to my mother before she passed. It reminded me of that time because the scene in the film is genuine and the relationship between the two characters felt as real as the relationship I had with my mother. This is what effective film making is about. Very few films manage to genuinely pull this sort of emotional weight off.
50/50 is tastefully shot and only sneaks slightly into the realm of stylistic flair on two occasions, the previously mentioned weed cake sequence and the scene where Adam receives the news of his cancer. In that scene the moment the word “Cancer” is said everything around Adam pulls out of focus and the sound becomes muffled effectively conveying the weight and impact of the news on his character. A lesser director would have likely repeated stylistic ideas such as this at various points in the film, for example it would have been easy to do one of those tiresome “nightclub is a loud psychedelic blur” scenes. Thankfully director Jonathan Levine understands that in a film grounded so firmly in reality stylish flair should only be used when it serves the emotion of the scene and should not be repeated. Once is special, twice would be repetition and damaging to the work as a whole.
Overall 50/50 is a very well made and emotionally effective film. The performances are very strong by everyone involved. It was especially nice to see Anna Kendrick not play a straight forward love interest. She has her own issues what with her fear of failing as a potential doctor and her gradual attachment to Adam manages to feel real. Although I suppose we should ignore the slightly unprofessional nature of a doctor falling for her patient. I wouldn’t bring it up if I was in Adams place… I mean, it IS Anna Kendrick after all. Also this has to be the first film where I’ve not wanted to punch Seth Rogen at any point other the films progression. He’s not on the same auto-pilot we’ve come to expect him to be on and while his performance isn’t that far removed from say, his character on Pineapple Express, he comes across as a genuine person who you could understand Adam having as a friend. When we see just how concerned for Adam he has been you’ll begin to understand all his actions and why he is so protective of him. This is top level film making and deserves to be watched. Oh, and also, Adam has a dog called Skeletor. I think that’s reason enough to watch the film.