'50/50' is a rare breed of film. It could have been written as a morose, over-sentimental drama concocted to milk tears from an audience, or it could have been moulded as a farcical lowbrow romp with no regard for the reality that is cancer. Thankfully, the film does not belong to either category. Instead, director Levine deftly blends humour and pathos to create what I believe is one of the most refreshing films of the past decade.
'50/50' stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a 27 year-old who is diagnosed with a rare type of spinal cancer. The film's title alludes to Adam's chance of overcoming the illness. Adam is almost indifferent to the news upon first receiving it. He believes that all will be fine, eventually. As the film progresses, he realises the gravity of his condition and comes to terms with the prospect that death, after all, is a possibility. Adam is not alone in his struggle. He is kept level-headed by his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), who is responsible for most of the film's laughs (of which there are plenty). It becomes apparent that Kyle is using Adam's cancer to attract sympathy from women with whom he hopes to sleep with. Kyle also wants Adam to a find a woman of his own, after discovering that Adam's girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), considers his cancer too burdensome. As part of his treatment, Adam undergoes psychotherapy at the hands of Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is altruistic though vastly inexperienced. Scenes involving Adam and Katherine are often awkward (not because they are bad actors) but also very tender and endearing. Adam is hesitant about breaking the news to his parents. He feels that his mother (Anjelica Huston) will panic too much. Besides, she already has to cope with her husband, who has Alzheimer's. Adam does tell his mother, but doesn't warm to her smothering ways.
The film is loosely based on writer Will Reiser's own experience with cancer, where he was helped by a close friend: none other than Rogen himself. The film seamlessly shifts between moments of hilarity and tenderness. The shift is not forceful; the film does not toy with our emotions by using any cheap ploys or gimmicks. I will admit that I shed a few tears during the film: not because I was emotionally manipulated, but because I cared for the characters so much. Gordon-Levitt's performance probably won't be nominated for an Oscar, which is a shame because I think it deserves one. The film's trailer breaks down Adam's illness using a slightly altered variation of Kübler-Ross' 'Five Stages of Grief'. This is accurate as we see Adam display a myriad of emotions. As mentioned before, he accepts the grim news almost indifferently. This is his defence mechanism; his denial. There's a powerful scene towards the end of the film involving Adam and Kyle's car. I won't say what happens, but this is the pinnacle of Adam's frustration: his painful acceptance, expressed wearily through the confession "I just want it to be over. I'm so fucking tired of being sick."
Seth Rogen is the one constant throughout the film. From start to finish, he exudes this rare kind of buffoonery that springs from empathy rather than silliness. He knows his best friend is sick, and he figures that being miserly around him would do no help. On the night before Adam's major operation, Kyle does not want to bring it up with Adam. He would rather live in the moment and make the most of it. Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer play two older friends that Adam converses with at his chemotherapy sessions. Their performances, especially Hall's, add charm to the film, as we've all known people like them. They have grown accustomed to their conditions, and even poke fun at the illness as a way of coping. As Frewer's character remarks about the name of Adam's condition: "The more syllables, the worse it is."
Anna Kendrick was very impressive as Katherine, Adam's psychotherapist. I've only seen her in one other film: Jason Reitman's 'Up in the Air'. Others may know her as Jessica from the 'Twilight' films. She was great in Reitman's film and she is flawless here. Her character could easily have been a clichéd mess if played by a less-talented actress. Kendrick portrays Katherine with enough timidity to come off as naive and inexperienced, but also with enough enthusiasm to suggest that her and Adam could transcend their doctor-patient relationship.
What's essential to understand about '50/50' is that it is not a movie about cancer. It is a movie about commitment and those who stick by us in trying times. It's about appreciating being alive and not taking our lives for granted. I was deeply moved by this film. I cannot fathom how anyone could dislike it. I would go as far as to say that, if you dislike '50/50', you are an inherently bad person. It has the power to please even the most grim cynic.