Sometimes it’s difficult to objectively review a movie when the movie in question affects you on a deeper level than most. Sometimes emotions take over, and you find yourself caught up in the plight of these characters without noticing the nuances and the details of the film itself. It could be the performances, or perhaps it might be that somewhere in the recesses of your own memory you identify with these characters and their situation. This is where I found myself while watching 50/50, the oh-so rare “cancer comedy” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. This is a film which uses humor as a defense mechanism, and also as a way to pull the audience into the story before the strong emotions of the situation take over. And you find yourself completely lost in the lives of these people and invested to a point where camerawork and style choices don’t matter much. I don’t know if my review of 50/50 is an accurate and objective look at the film as a whole more than it might be an emotional reaction to a film that I fell in love with.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Adam, a programmer for a Seattle public radio. Adam is perhaps the safest 27-year old on the planet; he exercises, he rarely drinks, he doesn’t smoke. Hell, he doesn’t even drive because “it’s the fifth leading cause of death.” So imagine the irony of Adam’s life when he is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and given a fifty percent chance of survival. Adam’s best friend since high school is Kyle, a slightly less squared away young man played by Seth Rogen. Kyle is the funny man to Adam’s straight persona, and when he learns of Adam’s diagnosis he has a slight freak out but never abandons his friend. The same thing cannot be said for Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who gradually drifts away from Adam as his disease becomes too much.
Adam begins his chemotherapy and decides to shave his head before it starts falling out. Kyle sees this as an opportunity for the two of them to score girls. He may use Adam’s illness to his advantage out at the bar, but he never comes off as completely selfish. At least to me. Kyle is a good friend, and we get confirmation of this in a later scene. While Adam endures the chemotherapy he strikes up a relationship with two older cancer patients (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) and also tries to keep his suffocating mother (Angelica Huston) at bay. All the while, he strikes up a heartfelt doctor-patient relationship with Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a young grief counselor who takes a liking to Adam.
50/50 is a wonderfully comedic film most of the time. Adam uses dry humor while Kyle uses his relentless energy and sharp wit to deal with the fact his friend might die. But as the film works its way into the third act, there is an overwhelming emotional draw that deeply affected me. Nothing is manipulative here; the emotion comes from a genuine place and never tries to make the audience cry. But it still does, a true testament to the screenplay by Will Reiser whose own battle with cancer inspired this semi-true tale. I was reminded of my own friends, my own experiences with cancer in my family, and there is a moment of truth scene near the end that is sweet and quietly devastating.
Maybe 50/50 could be better to some people, I don’t know. Some people may not care for the Rogen character, but I felt like it was just the right amount of Seth Rogen. Not too much, not too little. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to impress as Adam, whose range of emotion is spot on. Maybe there are flaws with 50/50 as a film. But to me, here I was completely swept up in Adam’s story, pulled into the emotions of the film and managing to laugh all the way to the end. It is a crime that Will Reiser’s screenplay wasn’t nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but I don’t imagine it matters much to him. I know it didn’t change my opinion of the film.