[The following is a film review of 2011 release 50/50, directed by Jonathon Levine.]
What would you do if you were diagnosed with cancer, and given a fifty:fifty chance of survival? This is the fate that is thrust upon earnest and humble protagonist Adam Learner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Jonathon Levine’s comedy drama, 50/50. Watching Adam navigate his way through the process of dealing with this unexpected event is certainly one of pleasure and enjoyment, albeit with a few minor hiccups along the way.
Inspired by writer/producer Will Reiser’s own personal experiences, 50/50 depicts the ups and downs Adam goes through after being diagnosed with schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer located on his spine. Faced with less than likeable odds, Adam’s journey first begins as a struggle to reduce the impact of this fate on those around him. This includes over-bearing mother Diane (well delivered by Angelica Houston), best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen), and self-indulgent girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Once the initial shock clears, Adam is forced to place the focus back on himself and his newly discovered illness. Queue young trainee therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick) and chemotherapy amigos Alan and Mitch (Phillip Baker Hall, Matt Frewer). Now begins the conventional journey of self-discovery you’d expect from a film like this, but with an approach quite unique in its own right.
We watch as Adam struggles with the fact he might be going to die, evident in his realistic portrayal of the five stages of grieving. Once past denial, Adam moves on to anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, just as you’d expect. With the loss of one of his chemotherapy friends, Mitch, the reality of Adam’s illness hits hard, after being downplayed for a significant portion of the film. Gordon-Levitt out does himself here; his portrayal of this process seems so accurate and true, it gives the film a warmth that draws you in.
Several elements of 50/50 make it that much more enjoyable in comparison to other similar ‘cancer themed’ films. The bromance relationship established between Rogen and Gordon-Levitt proves itself to be more than just your average male bonding film scenario. Rogen is at his best here, playing a more subdued, likeable version of his characteristic boisterous and dull-witted stereotype. The relationship holds a certain subtle wit and charm you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere; Rogen is needed here to give the situation a light-hearted feel, adding humor to what would ordinarily be a subject quite depressing.
Also adding her two cents is Adam’s stern mother, Diane. Living with a husband suffering from a severe case of Alzheimer’s, Diane is constantly desperate for Adam’s attention. Houston plays this role remarkably well, pulling it off with what seems like relative ease. Her relationship with Adam, portrayed as quite distant previously, develops over the course of the film as Adam begins to accept the support his mother inherently comes with.
Gordon-Levitt injects a small amount of awkwardness into the film through his portrayal of Adam. His nature – kind, selfless, subdued – works well (awkwardly so) against that of Katherine’s nervous and gawky demeanor. Something about the pairing of the two makes for an uncomfortable yet enjoyable ride; the end point of their relationship is obvious and predictable – it’s not if, but when – yet Levine and Reiser play with this, intertwining Adam’s uncertain fate with the prospect of the relationship.
What worked least about the film is the supposed romance between Adam and Rachael. When we first meet the couple at Adam’s house, it becomes clear they’re just not meant to be straight away. There’s just something not quite right. Whilst Adam is sympathetic, kind and loving, Rachael seems to be written as the unappreciative love interest that exists purely to annoy the audience. Sure she’s pretty and at times relatively nice, but she’s always a step back from Adam and the reality of his cancer. So blatant and predictable is the relationship’s end that one must feel a little let down; in all other respects, the writing is superb. But here this relationship seems to exist as a set up or prelude to that of Adam and Katherine, and nothing more.
A cancer-themed comedy drama once seemed like an unlikely successful duo; yet 50/50 manages it with little hesitation. Despite some predictable relationship plays, Levine and Reiser manage to portray the life-altering experience that is being diagnosed with cancer with warmth and authenticity. If you’ve had enough of the tear-jerking clichéd emotional drama but secretly love all the crying, give 50/50 a go. With such a likeable lead in Gordon-Levitt’s Adam, and a sidekick of Rogen’s Kyle, 50/50 hits the spot with humble laughs, awkward therapist interactions, and real tears.