Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty good life. He works in Seattle as a producer for a public radio station, his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is always good for a laugh, he lives happily with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), and best of all, he’s exceptionally healthy.
An odd back pain sends Adam to the doctor where he discovers he’s suffering from a late stage tumor. The diagnosis shocks him at first as he’s spent considerable time exercising, eating healthy, and avoiding alcohol and drugs, but he quickly moves to anger…because he’s spent considerable time exercising, eating healthy, and avoiding alcohol and drugs. His tumor is a rare type, and while he weighs his options including chemotherapy and surgery he discovers the unofficial odds on his survival over the next few months are fifty-fifty. There’s a one in two chance he’ll be dead before his next birthday.
That pretty good life soon collapses around him as he’s forced to face the reality of both his life and death. His journey will expose certain truths about himself, his family and friends, and even a few strangers, and it might even give him a new pick-up line for the ladies…
Imagine if Funny People was a comedy. Then imagine it was filled with wit, heart, and an honesty about the relationships we form throughout our lives. Now stop imagining, because that movie you’re picturing is 50/50.
“No one wants to fuck me. I look like Voldemort.”
Adam’s entry into the Cancer Club brings him into contact with a young therapist (Anna Kendrick) and two other patients (Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall) currently fighting the disease, and he learns from each of them. Existing relationships also get a facelift as the stress of the illness weighs on Rachael, Kyle and his mom (Angelica Huston). It’s Adam’s fate, but he learns for better or worse that he’s not alone.
Impending death isn’t a typical theme for comedies, but it works as the plot device here thanks to a smart, funny and honest script by Will Reiser. It finds laughs through the characters and situations, but it never forgets the core truth that this is a story about a young man potentially facing the end of his life. The story lets Adam and the audience experience the frustration and anger as well as the joy and absurdities. Director Jonathan Levine trusts both the script and the actors, and together they ensure the film never crosses into melodrama or movie of the week territory.
The heart of the film can be found in both the character of Adam and the performance of Gordon-Levitt. Adam is a nice guy dealt a bad hand, and Gordon-Levitt immediately makes us comfortable around him and concerned for him simultaneously. He’s capable of expressing a lot with a little, and while he often uses his facial skills for eyebrow arching comedy, films like this and (500) Days of Summer have proven him skilled at earning an emotional response through subtle looks and gestures. Adam’s mental road trip through the stages of grief are often heartbreaking and hilarious, and Gordon-Levitt sells it all beautifully.
Most of the supporting cast are equally excellent, and this includes Rogen. Kyle seems often to exist solely for crass humor and punchlines, but he brings a certain warmth to the role as well and makes it clear why Adam would be best friends with such a loudmouthed goofball. The real breakout here though is Kendrick. Up In the Air proved she could steal a scene from the higher profile actors around her, and she does it again here. The difference is that she’s no longer stuck playing a sidekick or comedic foil, and instead she stands tall in perhaps her most fully developed and endearing role yet.
The film’s only real weakness can be found in the girlfriend and mother characters. Howard and Huston give the roles their best efforts, but both of them are stuck with stereotypical and predictable character arcs. We know exactly how each of them will behave from the moment we meet them, and they offer little to the overall experience.
50/50 was inspired by Reiser’s own experiences with cancer in his mid twenties, and if there’s a message to the movie it’s that laughter really is the best medicine. Cliched? Sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Finding the humor in any situation is an often overlooked key to survival, and while the film never shies away from the pain, suffering, and depression associated with an experience like this, it stays true to its core belief. The people who make you laugh, in good times and bad, are the people you want and need to keep close.
The Upside: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is heartbreaking and inspiring; Anna Kendrick shines and steals every scene she’s in; Seth Rogen is believably distraught but hilarious; script never feels maudlin or mopey and doesn’t go for cheap shots; strong soundtrack
The Downside: Angelica Huston and Bryce Dallas Howard are saddled with cliched characters
On the Side: The film’s original title is I’m With Cancer. It’s a far better choice.