Buddy farce ’50/50′ evoles into thoughtful, humane survival comedy
It’s said when a person faces mortality, his entire life flashes before his eyes. It didn’t happen that way for comedy producer and screenwriter Will Reiser. When he was diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer, he couldn’t help noticing the absurdist side of the situation as he progressed from diagnosis to therapy, chemo and surgery. Where others might see a tragedy in progress, Reiser was thinking: comedy script.
The result is 50/50, a tender, thoughtful and humane comedy disguised as a raunchy guy farce, complete with Seth Rogen as the cancer patient’s horndog buddy. In real life, Rogen and Reiser are friends; they were working together on Da Ali G Show when Reiser’s cancer drama began, and Reiser has written him a typically gauche comic part in the film. But 50/50 belongs to the ever-intriguing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who racks up another wry, disarming, perfectly life-sized performance in the central role.
Directed by Jonathan Levine, the film introduces Adam (Gordon-Levitt) a 27-year-old radio writer. He’s fit and active, with such a low-key personality, he doesn’t even drive. He’s only just taken the step of inviting his girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), a flighty wannabe artist, to move in with him, when he gets the cancer diagnosis, from a doctor whose blasé, businesslike manner does nothing to soften the blow. (“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I recycle,” protests the disbelieving Adam.)
His best friend is fellow radio writer Kyle (Rogen), the kind of vulgarian who critiques Adam’s girlfriends on whether or not they give blow jobs, and is certainly not above using his friend’s cancer drama to score sympathy from women in bars and get laid. Rogen plays Kyle broadly, as a big goof, and the movie is probably least authentic when he’s around. (That so many sexy women onscreen keep falling for his wheezy lines can only be chalked up to wishful thinking on the part of the scriptwriter.)
But Kyle is one component in a larger story of how other people around him do (or do not) deal with Adam’s situation. Rachel gets him a dog—an old, retired racing greyhound from the shelter—who turns into a substitute companion for Adam as Rachel finds herself less and less able to cope. (She won’t go into the hospital with him for his treatments for fear of all that “negative energy.”)
Also complicating matters is Adam’s smothering mom (a wonderful Anjelica Huston)—who also has her hands full taking care of Adam’s dad, a genial fellow in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. Adam’s usual defense mechanism is to not pick up or return his mother’s calls (it’s a recurring early joke that both the women in his life keep whining to Adam how hard his cancer is on them), but it’s a measure of Adam’s evolution that he comes to appreciate the helpless rage of loved ones who just want to fight for him, somehow.
Then there’s Katherine (Anna Kendrick), a fledgling psychotherapist even younger than Adam (he’s her third patient) who tries to guide him through the various stages of numbness and rage. We can see a simpatico affection brewing, but Reiser resists the urge to introduce a conventional romance. Much of their screen time together is screwball comedy, but she’s a compassionate listener when mild-mannered Adam finally needs to vent; facing a 50 percent chance that he will die, he tells her, “It makes it worse that no one will just say it.”
The film navigates pretty smoothly between buddy comedy and its more heartfelt elements—and in its best moments, both elements converge. Adam bonds with a couple of older chemo patients, irascible Alan (Philip Baker Hall), and serene Mitch (Matt Frewer); they ply him with pot-laced macaroons and offer him the temporary respite of comrades who actually understand what he’s going through. Adam tires of being dragged out to the bars with Kyle (“Nobody wants to fuck me, I look like Voldemort,” the bald Adam points out), but even clownish Kyle is eventually redeemed as a reliable, caring friend. 50/50 never pokes fun at cancer or cancer patients, but it does offer up a bracing and humorous manual on coping with life’s surprises.
★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendricks and Anjelica Huston. Rated R. 99 minutes.