50/50 review

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, the comedy drama 50/50 is an unexpectedly moving and brilliant film, Nick writes…

Forgive the question, but have you ever known anyone who’s fought cancer? I’m guessing that’s probably everyone reading this. If so, then the themes, situations and emotion of 50/50 will cut you right to the core. All from what has been billed as a ‘cancer comedy’.

50/50 is a quietly powerful film that has remained with me since I saw it, and has been a difficult one to shake off. I think the heart of it is that it’s so damn real. There’s no unnecessary moralising, no saintly ill people suffering, just a young man who finds himself in an all too familiar life and death situation. And for me, it’s a triumph of warmth, charm and pathos. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a 27-year-old working in public service radio with his best friend Kyle, played by Seth Rogen. He’s an anxious guy, with a distant artist girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard) and a seemingly needy and overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston). In short, he’s not that different from a lot of people. Maybe he bites his nails a bit more than a grown man should, though.

Kyle, on the other hand, is confident with the ladies, and sure of himself. In short, he’s post-fame Seth Rogen. There’s an immediate ease and rapport between the two guys, with a lot of the comedy coming from Rogen’s character and his borderline offensive one-liners. The world is set up as a safe, normal everyday environment, the likes of which we’ve seen in a hundred indie comedies. Then Adam goes for a seemingly innocuous check-up at the doctors about the back pain he’s been suffering.

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It turns out he’s suffering from a rare and complicated form of cancer, simplified quite succinctly as back cancer by Kyle. Adam’s given a 50/50 chance of survival, put on a course of chemotherapy and sent to talk to a counsellor, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). The rest of the film details how he copes with his new situation, and how his life alters around it. 

So, on the surface it’s quite simple, but what makes it so good? I think the key is the way it treats the illness.

Adam does not become some sort of saint after being diagnosed, nor does he retreat into bitterness and anger at the world. He tries to adapt, and for me at least, and my experiences with family members who have suffered from cancer, it struck a chord. The comedy always comes from a natural and realistic place – it’s never forced or used to make fun of anyone or anything.

Unexpectedly, Seth Rogen breaks out of what you expect from him after the early scenes, and delivers a supporting performance of real substance and note, rather than being the go-to guy for a cheap laugh. He wants to help his friend in the only way he really knows how, and that’s to see the positives in the situation. For Kyle, this means using the cancer card to pick up women.

In probably one of the funniest and most painful scenes in the film, the two guys are chatting up some girls, who quickly lose interest and begin to leave. Cue Adam taking off his hat (for any beanie fans out there, this film is a dream come true), and exposing his bald head, before explaining his condition. This quickly leads to the girls going home with the guys, only for Adam being unable to have sex due to the side-effects of chemo.

This perfectly sums up the film: one moment you’ll be laughing quite a lot, the next you’ll be wincing in emotional pain at what’s happening. And without wanting to sound too pretentious about it, that’s pretty much real life for most of us. Raw and painful, but pretty damn funny along the way. 

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt firmly establishes himself as a genuine and versatile talent in a role he only took two days before filming. He really sells the difficult scenes, and what is initially a slightly uncooler version of his character from (500) Days Of Summer definitely comes into his own as the film progresses, as he seeks to not only be defined by his cancer. “His cancer” is a phrase which I think is important to note – cancer is a disease which is intensely personal, and I guess you do claim ownership of it.

50/50 succeeds in letting us into Adam’s mind, and none of his reactions seem out of place or unexpected, even when he becomes difficult and angry. It’s natural. However, it’s also something that affects everyone around you, and no matter what, becomes a shared experience. It’s impossibly difficult to watch a loved one fade away in front of you, not knowing whether they will live or die.

Coming into the final third, 50/50 really shifts into another gear, as if realising the responsibility it has to deliver on its early promise. Giving nothing away, even a short line has the capability to punch a hole in your gut by this stage.

The humour becomes slightly more gallows from here on in, and I defy anyone not to feel a lump in their throat. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a film of such subject matter which has so chimed with my thoughts and feelings about the topic, and cued up my memories too. So, credit to the filmmakers for pulling this off in a straight-faced way, unlaced with too much saccharine.

A further point to note in the film is the sub-plot between Adam and Katherine. Anna Kendrick is, once again, pretty adorable in her role here, and although occasionally her naivety as a not quite qualified doctor is somewhat hard to believeher role is a nice and needed counterpoint to the fact that Adam’s body has betrayed him.

It’s necessary to reinforce the film’s message that having cancer does not, and should not, remove you from society. In fact, it makes you realise how important it is to define and redefine your connections with society, and who means what to you.

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50/50 thankfully resists the sermonising which could so easily accompany this, and instead just shows you, whether through small character moments, or seemingly throwaway actions or lines. Even when it decides to up the emotion, it’s earned, and you don’t want to immediately switch off. 

However, it’s not all perfect. Bryce Dallas-Howard definitely gets the short end of the stick here, as a one-dimensional character designed to show how horrible and selfish people can be, while also demonstrating how much better Adam’s life could be without her. She’s so entirely without sympathy that you wonder why Adam was with her in the first place.

Still, her presence does lead to some of the funniest bits in the film, as Kyle finally decides to confront her, and then later on Adam himself stands up to her, in such a brutal and honest way you can’t help but wince. Then laugh. Then a few moments later feel really sad at something else. Some viewers may also take umbrage at the ending, but for me, it worked. You do get a brilliant Total Recall reference, too. Yep, you read that right.

So, a film I didn’t think much of before going in, and which didn’t win me over in the trailer, has turned out to be one of my favourites of the year. I guess it just pressed all the right buttons for me, and keyed into my own personal experiences enough that I couldn’t help but be there for the entire journey.

Being as I don’t believe my own personal experiences are really that different from most of yours, I hope you’ll get the same out of this film as I did. It’s a tough watch in parts, but shot through with such a rich vein of humour and compassion, as well as quite a bit of sweetness, that it completely won me over by the end. Highly recommended.  

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4 out of 5