One time in high school I was driving down the highway with some buddies. I was riding in the passenger seat, and messing around with the guys in the back seat. At some point, I unbuckled my safety belt for a moment so that I could turn around more easily; but as I turned and crouched, I accidentally bumped into the car door and somehow managed to open the door. With my ass. I kid you not. At the sudden sound of asphalt whipping by at 70 mph, with me precariously balancing sans seat belt, I believe I shouted something to the effect of “OH SHIT” and immediately grabbed on to the arm of the car seat and held on for dear life, closing the door and re-buckling my seat belt as quickly as possible. My friends proceeded to mock me mercilessly for the rest of the car ride.
The only reason any of that was funny, of course, was because I did NOT go tumbling to my certain painful doom out that car door. The line between humor and tragedy can be a fine one. Yes, it was probably silly to open up my review of this cancer-focused dramedy with such a ridiculous anecdote, but sometimes the only way we know how to deal with uncomfortable truths is with laughter. I just trivialized cancer! HAHAHAHA!!
Now, screenwriter Will Reiser could in many ways be accused of the same crime; though it certainly has its poignant moments, “50/50” can’t exactly claim to be a realistic portrayal of the harsh realities of cancer. Small matter: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, after all. And Reiser wrote the film based on his own experience battling a spinal tumor, so who are we healthy folk to complain?
For the first half or so of “50/50,” I was quite prepared to make some complaints, actually. While the crass antics of Reiser’s on-screen surrogate, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen, a real-life friend of Reiser’s and thus playing some version of himself) are undoubtedly hilarious, the film still felt like little more than a well-executed Judd Apatow feature: superficial female roles (particularly an inexplicably bitchy role for the talented Bryce Dallas Howard as Adam’s hesitant girlfriend Rachael) and the usual obsession with sex and various body parts are par for the course. I expected “50/50” to be a re-watchable, entertaining film, but didn’t think it would end up being much more than that.
But Jonathan Levine’s sophomore feature (his first being the minor indie critical hit, “The Wackness”) takes a subtle, unexpected, and entirely welcome turn toward emotional resonance in its second half. It’s hard to say when exactly “50/50” starts to weasel its way into the cockles of your heart (though “sea otter” comes to mind); Rogen’s raunchiness gradually balances out with the irresistible adorableness of Adam’s therapist/counsellor Katherine (the reliably cute Anna Kendrick) and some more mature, worldly reactions from Adam’s worry-wart mother and a pair of fellow patients (Anjelica Huston and the duo of Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer, respectively). The attempts to laugh off Adam’s affliction wear down as his plight becomes more and mores serious. There is a genuine sense of desperation that starts to seep into Gordon-Levitt’s performance. Adam is understandably frustrated with the injustice of his illness and his apparent lack of support; his girlfriend, once again makes some rather inexplicably bitchy choices, his mother’s overbearing concern seems to do more harm than good, and the difference between Seth Rogen in this film and Seth Rogen in every other film he’s made is that his friends recognize the annoying adolescent tinge of his schtick.
But not all these relationships are as they appear to be, and the team of Reiser and Levine do a wonderful job of making critical emotional revelations in small, subtle moments rather than grand Oscar-y speeches. “50/50” has a superb sense of timing, both comedic and dramatic; in the moment after Adam’s mother tells him she’s been going to a cancer support group, there is a slight beat before Adam responds, and you know that in that moment Adam has been forced to reconsider everything he thought he knew about the effects of his disease.
“50/50” serves as an affirmation of the power of friendship and loyalty: ultimately, the skeletal greyhound that Rachael buys for Adam proves to be of greater help than Rachael herself. Gordon-Levitt was an excellent choice for this role, since the naturally charming actor can elicit instant sympathy with the ease of a puppy; the frame practically explodes with sweetness whenever he and Kendrick are on screen together. The film sells a certain myth of cancer, to be sure; not all are so lucky to have a bromance so tight or therapist so gosh darn cute. But Levine and Reiser are not really interested in the scathing, unpleasant truth. Sometimes brutely confronting a sensitive subject isn’t the best course. Sometimes you just need to laugh it off.
Probably not playing in any theaters anymore. Shut up, I’ve been busy.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars