Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a 27-year-old who finds out he has cancer. Humour and heartbreak collide in director Jonathan Levine’s bittersweet story.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, a comedy-drama loosely inspired by the film’s writer Will Reiser’s own battle with the disease. This bittersweet tale counterpunches its touching, and at times heartbreaking story with surprising bouts of genuine levity. Typically, it’s co-star Seth Rogen’s foul mouth that produces the most laughs. Yet his frequent obscenities drawn from a juvenile appreciation of the opposite sex is underpinned by a soft-centre that permeates through the entire cast, illuminating 50/50 and making it much more than passable entertainment.
Gordon-Levitt stars as radio journalist Adam Lerner who discovers that he has a malignant tumour in his spine. Known as schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma, Adam must undergo chemotherapy to stop the cancer from spreading. Researching his chances, he discovers that only fifty percent of people survive. He understandably withdraws, shunning any help from his overbearing mother. To make matters worse, girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) struggles to come to terms with Adam’s illness. Best friend Kyle (Rogen) catches her kissing another man and this leads to the couple breaking up. Adam finds some solace in sharing his experience with fellow cancer sufferers Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), who he frequently meets at their chemotherapy sessions. He also befriends reserved, inexperienced therapist Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick), whose textbook “professional” guidance is far less helpful than their burgeoning friendship.
50/50 is a delight. Despite the graveness of its subject matter the film retains the ability to uplift in the most devastating moments. The cast has a great deal to do with making it work, but writer Will Reiser’s honesty underpins it all. With death knocking on the door, incredible physical and emotional pain reverberating amongst the principle characters, Reiser’s celebration of the human spirit punches a hole in the gloom. It makes you smile, it makes you cry, it makes you thankful for the things you have.
“This bittersweet tale counterpunches its touching, and at times heartbreaking story with surprising bouts of genuine levity.”
On top of that are some wonderful performances. For me, Kendrick has to be singled out. Her professional persona as Adam’s therapist is enlivened by an overwhelmingly cute naivety, making her warm, attractive smile that little bit more alluring. She’s dainty, sweet-natured and attractive, qualities that seep through the monotone doctor-patient relationship. Of course, Gordon-Levitt has the biggest shoes to fill. His everyman Adam is stripped back and raw. The actor mixes stone-faced independence with moments of both tender charm, courageous humour and utter, destructive anger. It is both his most unassuming performance and his most striking.
If I had a criticism it would be that Seth Rogen’s man-boy eccentricity feels too familiar, a mark of his early career as primarily a comic sidekick. That most sentences begin or end with references to blowjobs may be funny the first time, but not the fifteenth. However, he has a naturalness to his delivery that fits perfectly into the make-up of 50/50. So instead of tuning out the regurgitation of the usual shtick, we’re charmed by his warm heart…and dirty mouth.
Director Levine should also be commended for balancing tragedy with comedy. Such drama bedfellows are accustomed to working in harmony together – just ask William Shakespeare – but if one dominates the other it can have a detrimental affect on a story’s overall emotional resonance. However, when it is organically composed and natural, tragedy makes the humour funnier just as comedy makes tragedy more dramatic and moving. I was floored by one scene that sees Adam, who can’t drive and has no license, insisting on driving Kyle’s car as a sort of rites of passage before a possible life or death operation. Kyle’s reaction to Adam’s reckless route into oncoming traffic is superficially amusing but is in fact inspired by a frightened, enraged twenty-seven-year-old contemplating the possibility of there being no tomorrow.
“Joesph Gordon-Levitt mixes stone-faced independence with moments of both tender charm, courageous humour and utter, destructive anger. It is both his most unassuming performance and his most striking.”
Yet, the scene that particularly stands out, indeed the one that reminded me I was watching a great film, not just a very good one, bookends Adam’s attempts to re-establish a relationship with his mother. Before the anaesthetist puts Adam to sleep before an operation to aid his cancer recovery he asks how long he will be knocked out. This precedes the onset of panic: what if I wake up during the surgery? Then he directs his next remark to his mother, the woman he had until recently been at pains to keep at arms length. He says, “you’ll make sure I wake up after…Mum”. She tells him he’ll be fine and they briefly hold each other.
50/50 is a terrific tragicomedy. It has the unique ability to genuinely warm your heart and simultaneously break it. Plaudits to an exceptional cast, particularly Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick, writer Reiser’s honest approach, and director Levine’s seamless tonal balance ensuring you’ll both laugh and cry.
Review by Dan Stephens