In Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27 year old writer of radio programs. He leads his life normally, has a girlfriend named Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) who rarely sleeps with him and a best friend called Kyle (Seth Rogen) who’s as goofy as they come, always horny and always on the prowl. So for all matters and purposes, Adam is a regular young man with his life wide ahead of him. That is until a backache is diagnosed as a rare form of spinal cancer with a 50/50 chance of survival.
Confronted with his life continuing being as equal to the odds of getting head or tail in a coin flip, Adam begins to cope with his new reality. A therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), whose a newbie at her job, begins to help him, along with the new friends he meets in chemotherapy sessions, to deal with the reality of his illness. Life will prove hard on Adam but cope he will – taking it one smile and one laugh at a time.
50/50 is not a comedy. It is also not a tragedy. It’s a mixture of both. I was surprised when watching this movie how some people were calling it a comedy because it’s really not a comedy in absolute value. There are moments in it that will make you laugh, such as when Kyle begins convincing Adam to try and hook up with girls to which Adam replies that no girl would take him since he looks worse than Voldemort. But Kyle does not relent, obviously, and uses Adam’s story as a chick-magnet.
In a way, this heartfelt approach to cancer in cinema was never done before. But as it is with cancer, the sense of morbidity and drama soon set in especially when Adam starts to realize that there is indeed an expiry date on his body, one that might be way closer than his friends tell him, trying to convince him that cancer is nothing. A scene where Adam, who doesn’t know how to drive, takes Kyle’s car and goes around getting to a point where he just parks in the middle of the road and breaks down on the steering wheel comes to mind. Or Adam sitting next to his mother (Angelica Huston in a short but great performance) and crumbling in her arms.
The performances in 50/50, especially that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, are enough to carry the movie as it is. Sure, Seth Rogen is mostly there for some very needed comic-relief and he pulls through but the weight of the whole movie is on Gordon-Levitt’s shoulders and he manages to carry it. Obviously fueled by a great screenplay, Gordon-Levitt gets his dialogue flowing smoothly, his performance varies between optimism and pessimism and portrays coping mechanisms of dealing with illness to a very realistic extent. Anna Kendrick, as the quirky and unsure therapist whose sessions with Adam are important for her thesis project, is good as well though she’s not really given enough room to stretch her wings.
Actually, none of the characters are given room to grow in 50/50 outside of the box set to them by the film’s basic plot. Adam not driving, for instance, is never pursued. Rachael’s disconnection from reality is also never examined. She drives Adam to chemo but refuses to go in because of “bad energy”. Adam’s father’s alzheimer is never used in the movie except for a sad comical moment at the beginning of the movie when he introduces himself to his son.
At the end of the day, 50/50 is a decent movie. It’s something that almost everyone would enjoy watching but don’t be set on getting blown away by it. The premise may be different but the overall execution is safe, tidy. 50/50 will entertain you on scene to scene basis. But the movie as a whole lacks in extra punch what its premise presents: a comedy about cancer.
And it’s precisely that. It’s very hard to do a comedy about cancer because sooner or later the reality of that disease sets in. The oncologist who delivers the news to Adam is so disconnected from his patient as if he was simply reciting a paragraph from an anatomy text book. And it’s precisely that which is wrong with 50/50 – it’s simply too disconnected from its main idea and soon drifts into known territory and becomes more of “seen this before” land.