Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
50/50 isn’t the kind of movie that a studio could pay a screenwriter-for-hire to successfully draft. They’d try, no doubt, but the impact wouldn’t be nearly the same—it might even border on disrespectful. At times a raunchy comedy, director Jonathan Levine’s follow-up to 2008’s The Wackness doesn’t shy away from co-star Seth Rogen’s usual brand of dirty humor; when Rogen’s character, Kyle, persuades his cancer-stricken best friend Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to use his disease as a hook to lure in single ladies, Adam, his head shaven bald due to chemotherapy, responds with, “No one wants to fuck me, I look like Voldemort.” It’s a one-liner that’d fit in nicely with any of Rogen’s Judd Apatow-backed comedies, and, throughout much of its running time, 50/50 is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as flicks like Knocked Up.
But that’s not accounting for the film’s get-ready-to-cry emotion, screenwriter Will Reiser’s secret weapon that elevates 50/50 into a dramatic plateau miles above any of the Apatow projects. Another secret weapon: Reiser isn’t a pay-for-hire scribe, but, rather, one of Rogen’s real-life best friends who was diagnosed with having a cancerous tumor on his spine at age 27, a harrowing experience that provides the fuel for 50/50. Having lived through Adam’s fictional ordeal himself, Reiser informs the subject matter with an honesty that’s palpable from scene one, and with buddies like Rogen and his Superbad co-writer Evan Goldberg by his side, Reiser’s sense of humor is finely tuned.
The combination of his heartfelt connection toward Adam’s situation and his built-in comedic chops (Reiser wrote for Da Ali G Show) give Reiser’s script an acute heftiness. From top to bottom, 50/50 strikes several chords, the principle one being an earnestness that’s equally tender and accessible.
It doesn’t hurt that Reiser and Levine have assembled an ace lineup of actors. Perfectly cast is Gordon-Levitt, one of his generation’s finest performers; in Adam, he has a role that allows him to tap into some of his 3rd Rock From The Sun comedy background but mostly affords Gordon-Levitt the chance to run an emotional gamut. For the first two-thirds of 50/50, Gordon-Levitt delivers a Master’s class in restrained fragility, conveying Adam’s internalized anguish with delicate smiles, self-deprecating humor, and sincere warmth, even when his two-timing girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) leaves him due to her inability to cope with Adam’s sickness.
Gradually, Adam sinks into a dark hole, accepting the fact that the cancer might kill him before he's truly lived, and that he’s helpless against it. His young, in-training therapist (Anna Kendrick, making her character’s own insecurities cutely endearing) unsuccessfully tries to ease his pain, all while she's well aware that there’s a romance brewing between them but is unable to act upon it. Kyle, meanwhile, constantly attempts to lighten the mood, talking more about how Adam’s cancer can ignite their sex lives and less about how Adam feels. Also in the mix is Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston), whose pained concern is shunned by Adam, much like how he’s always closed himself off from his mother’s affections.
Adam eventually goes into surgery, and in that moment 50/50’s lighthearted sentimentality tips over into genuine tissue-blowing emotion. The key to the film’s creative triumphs, however, is how Levine’s non-intrusive direction and Reiser’s multifaceted characterization prevent 50/50 from veering too heavily into sadness; there’s grief in abundance, but the film’s primary focus is to present a dangerous life alteration as a true test of friendship and one’s own resiliency, and, in that respect, it’s an enlightening success.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)