Cinema is preoccupied with life-or-death situations. Typically, we’re talking an explosive finale to an action film, or the climax of a pulse-pounding thriller, or a graphic blood-drenched murdering. But there aren’t so many films which are just about one life dealing with their potential impending death throughout the course of the whole film. Actually, that’s not so true. There are undoubtedly many movies that play the terminal illness card, but I have usually steered clear of them as they are typically Hallmark “based on a true story” TV movie. So, to qualify, 50/50 is probably the first I can personally remember seeing where cancer is the main narrative thrust, and not an off-hand sub-plot cul-de-sac). And as such, despite focusing on a topic which directly or indirectly affects pretty much everyone at least some point in their lives, 50/50 seemed strangely refreshing, as Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) perfectly healthy young man is suddenly diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. A quick internet search provides a 50% chance of survival, and we follow his chemo and therapy sessions as family and friends react to his condition. What’s more, it’s a comedy (and no, sadly not an adaptation of a hit CBBC gameshow).
50/50’s success is in its believability, which is evenly split between the script and lead performance. Drawn from screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences with cancer, there’s an inherent realism with how everything unfolds, and how the diagnosis changes not just Adam’s life, but the lives of those around him. In his interactions with his trainee psychologist (Anna Kendrick) and fellow patients receiving treatment (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer), it feels practically anecdotal. But the real benefit is in its underplayed tone, never as irreverent as you would rightly expect from a “cancer comedy with Seth Rogen”. This balance is maintained by a brilliantly measured performance from Gordon-Levitt, who’s so gosh darn likeable, it’s heart-breaking to see him coast along with his life in a semi-limbo. As the realisation of his predicament catches up with him, it’s devastatingly delivered. Maybe his low-key approach is too subtle for award contention in a film that could be perceived to be just another bromantic comedy with dirty jokes (though it’s commendable how it avoids obvious gags, and there’s far less gross-out humour than you would expect it to exploit). But he effortlessly rises above it, and you’re rooting for him all the way.
The rest of the cast is a more mixed bunch, though whether this is because they are in comparison to JGL or just saddled with less interesting characters is up for debate. Bryce Dallas Howard as Adam’s girlfriend Racheal starts off fine, but the film quickly forces her into one dimension. Kendrick is deliberately wishy-washy, but her therapy session scenes fall emotionally flat when they should be the heart of the picture. Anjelica Huston fares better in her brief appearances as Adam’s mother. Yet Rogen, who is perhaps the odd-one-out as the rather obvious schlubby best-buddy, works best doing his schtick in a supporting role and it’s hard to argue with his presence when he is effectively reprising his real-life role as writer Reiser’s genuine best-buddy.
Yes, it’s fundamentally a “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” comedy-drama, but it earns its place without lapsing into oversentimentality, opting for an understated approach that makes it more powerful and touching when it needs to be. Perhaps its unshowiness stops it from making a lasting impact, and it may not find an audience appreciative of both sensitive portrayals of dealing with cancer and knockabout japery, but so be it. It’s worth any flaws for its lead performance alone.