Reviews by Andrew Magee & Charlie Reynolds

Few mainstream films these days focus on difficult issues. You won’t find much political comment in the Transformers trilogy, or the great human questions being asked by vampires in Twilight. For the more challenging matters you often have to look to the cinematic fringes.

But 50/50 bravely takes on cancer in a mainstream buddy comedy starring Seth Rogen. Not too many of those words could have been put in a single sentence before.

Jonathan Levine’s film charts the life of 27-year-old radio journalist Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his spine. He tries to come to terms with his illness with the help of girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard), newbie psychologist (Anna Kendrick) and perennial goofball Kyle (Rogen).

Adam is borderline OCD, and a journalistic perfectionist, so the news of his illness shatters his perfectly ordered life. His friendship with the wisecracking Kyle seems mismatched, especially as Kyle uses the cancer as bait to try and get laid. Despite these indiscretions, he is supportive at heart and there is a genuine and deep affection between the two, even if this does not obviously manifest itself.

Gordon-Levitt is the perfect obsessive, giving Adam the initial denial that all terminally ill patients must feel: it’ll never happen to me. But, as realisation begins to beckon, the raw emotions of anger and terror are exposed, with Gordon-Levitt providing a surprisingly emotional performance.

Rogen does nothing we haven’t seen before, and it’s a wonder he doesn’t burst out with a Superbad/Knocked Up quote or two, but his bumbling style is perfectly suited to the role, and neatly shadows Gordon-Levitt’s more reserved performance. His reckless charm also gives more substance to the sincere affection Kyle has for his best friend.

As Adam’s life begins to change and his chances of survival are rated as, yep, 50/50, the film subtly negotiates moments of outright hilarity (mostly Rogen’s lines) with real heartache. It is a balancing act that might deter sceptics, but it is satisfying and fulfilling.

The comedy does provide moments of relief for an audience that might otherwise be daunted by the harrowing prospect of what is being discussed. But the jokes never threaten to cheapen the illness; they are just a way for two friends to negotiate the trauma of cancer.

At one point, as Adam undergoes chemotherapy, a fellow patient hears the full diagnosis of his condition – Schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma – “The more syllables, the worse it is.”

In a sense, that’s one of the strengths of Levine’s film: it doesn’t over-complicate the issue with talk. Cancer is dealt with matter-of-factly, if such a thing can be, and this simplicity adds to the emotional weight as the film journeys to its close.

The most painful scenes are allowed to play out with an economy of language, with the emotional response of the audience resting on the film’s strength of character. But Levine has done enough to ensure we care for Adam and that we genuinely share in the heartache of his family and friends.

Cancer may have appeared frequently in films, often alluded to as the cause of death of a character, but it has never really been dealt with outright. Not just the diagnosis itself, but the life that comes afterwards and the very real prospect of facing death.

50/50 explores these problems in an unorthodox, and undeniably comedic, way but it never allows itself to become an out and out comedy. The jokes add to the personalities on show and sometimes provide a stark contrast to the seriousness of the issue, but they never detract from it.

It would be very easy to mix cancer and comedy in an unclear and conflicting film, but Levine perfectly balances the humour and the drama to create a very funny, and a very emotionally affecting film.

Charlie’s take: A comedy about a man with cancer on the surface sounds like a film to avoid, particularly when followed by the ominous words ‘inspired by a true story’.

However with 50/50 this would be a mistake as the film manages to avoid descending into the sort of mawkish tearjerker that it so easily could have and is instead both genuinely touching and amusing in the equal measure that its title would suggest.

The film’s expert balancing between the tragic and comic is underpinned by the excellent performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen as well as Anjelica Huston and Anna Kendrick.

Ultimately all of the characters are completely believable and it is this realism that makes the film such a success.

Gordon-Levitt is brilliant in the lead role of Adam, taking the viewer through every emotion, as he comes to terms with his diagnosis, without ever overplaying anything.

He is ably supported by Rogen who plays Kyle, Adam’s best friend, and while his performance is not a huge departure from previous roles, his boorish wit is supplemented by an underlying gravity rarely seen before.

He provides many of the film’s laughs however he is also involved in some of the more moving scenes, which may come as a surprise to critics who in the past have seen him as having nothing more to offer than crude humour.

As well as coming across as realistic characters, Gordon-Levitt and Rogen have an excellent chemistry together and so their friendship doesn’t seem forced in anyway. The scene where they shave off Adam’s hair before his chemotherapy is a particular highlight.

Anjelica Huston is fantastic as Adam’s understandably worried mother, already looking after a husband with Alzheimer’s and Anna Kendrick who plays his incredibly inexperienced therapist is also excellent.

There are many places in 50/50 where you fear it could spiral into an over-sentimental soap-opera of a film, thankfully however director Jonathan Levine’s finished product is more subtle than that.

As a result we are left with a rare gift, a film that is both moving and funny in perfect equilibrium.

 

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.