When I first saw the trailer for 50/50, the new comedic drama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, I instantly thought of another great cancer memoir: Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, by Miriam Engelberg. In it, Engelberg talks about the awkwardness of cancer, the humiliating situations, and the anger that she felt. Of course, it’s all very funny, but it’s also strange that people rarely talk about cancer in so harsh a light. For every Laura Linney on The Big C, there are countless people becoming better people and rising above the illness on television and in film. It’s a powerful redemption/conquering adversity story, so understandably it’s told all the time.
Male cancer is even less often portrayed (by my count, there is Brian’s Song and, um, that’s pretty much it). That is why 50/50, a by-the-numbers yet refreshingly honest film, is sowelcome. Loosely inspired by the real life of screenwriter Will Reiser, the film tells the story of Adam (a no-vice-having writer who finds out that he has cancer and a 50% chance of survival) and the people in his small support system who have a really hard time being supportive.
There’s Kyle (Seth Rogen), his slacker-stoner bestie with a penchant for ladies and telling lewd jokes in public (a character inspired, unsurprisingly, by Rogen himself, who helped Reiser through his own cancer-pades). There’s Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), Adam’s girlfriend, an artist who has that remarkable ability to contort shallowness into something resembling depth. There’s Katie (Anna Kendrick), Adam’s green therapist with a desire to seem empathetic yet a complete inability to make even the smallest physical contact seem genuine. And there’s Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston), who wants to be closer to her son as he is slowly pulling away.
The cast is impressive. Howard has now made a habit of turning in solid performances in films that have more standout roles (i.e. The Help), and the same is true here. Huston, similarly, is wonderful as a mother dealing with a husband slipping away mentally and a son slowly dying. Huston has played detached mother figures for so long that it is a shock to see her emote so nakedly on-screen. She’s still very controlled (and controlling), but comparatively it’s like Diane Keaton throwing herself off of a roof and shooting a dog while being overcome with frustration and sadness. And Anna Kendrick turns in a performance that makes it all the more obvious why people are always talking about Anna Kendick.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a very subdued lead performance, much different than his manic, off-camera persona. Much different also than the way that the whimsy of his character in 500 Hundred Days of Summer never quite gelled with him on-screen, Adam seems a character Gordon-Levitt is uniquely born to play. His delicate features and lined face make him seem, when bald (Spoiler Alert?), like a very old baby, with all the frailty associated with being so young and yet so close to death contained therein. He’s bruised, shy, and slow to lash out. His controlled actions speak more than if he spent the entire movie lashing out at every person or thing that crossed his path. The film is told through him and rather than solely about him, which is a welcome relief. The standout actor, though, is Rogen, who gives a performance that should make audiences remember why they loved him in the first place (and forget TheGreen Hornet and the Rogen-fatigue it launched).
The film can be very predictable, especially when it comes to plot. From Katie’s first scene, for instance, with her awkward mannerisms and too professional demeanor, it's easy to map out where the plot is going to take her. It’s not a surprising film in that way. The film succeeds, though, because of its specificity of character. Each character may start out as a stereotype (slacker best friend, smothering mother, etc.), but Reiser has made each character feel real, like real people. Though it is ostensibly a comedy, the humor doesn’t come from witty, Heigl-esque one-liners but from things normal people say. Rogen’s Kyle isn’t God’s gift to comedy, he’s just a funny person. Also, characters feel real because their reactions to Adam’s cancer seem specific to them. Huston’s attempts to solve her son’s problems with too much attention and green tea don’t just seem like the actions of an every-mother. They seem like the actions of a very specific mother – Adam’s mother.
The people behind 50/50 seem to want to say something about America’s healthcare system, and that’s where the film hits an awkward patch (weird rhythms, man). There is the overly curt physician that gives Adam his diagnosis. There’s the doctor’s that wheel Adam away from his mother without giving him a chance to say goodbye. Even the character of Katie – Adam’s therapist and maybe-love interest – though slightly redeemed throughout the film, is not painted in the best light professionally. Reiser wants to say something, but he just doesn’t know how to land the punches. It seems awkward in a film focused on not making a point that he would even try.
The film isn’t exactly spectacular, but it is an almost perfectly developed slice-of-life story that finds humor in unexpected and real places and works effectively to tell a very real and not-often heard story. Which is amazing, in and of itself.
Film Grade: A-
Oh, also, Michael Giacchino (Up, The Incredibles) does the music here. He also did most (if not all) of the music for Alias, so I'm just going to send out my love right here.