It is rare to find a movie about cancer that is not completely hopeless. Too many times someone’s illness or death outweighs any attempt to reconcile its dark nature with a few laughs or even a melancholy nature. Luckily for us, Jonathon Levine (The Wackness), the director of 50/50, knows how to walk the line between gloomy hopelessness and humorous pathos, between emotional gravitas and lighthearted optimism. The incarnation of this usually deadly disease, in this case, is explored in every avenue possible, but Levine’s comedic insertions are not forced. Instead, they embody the reality of life’s highs and lows.
The only cliché this movie produces is the consistently gray and cloudy sky of the Seattle backdrop. Living in this pacific northwest metropolis is Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception), a non-drinker, non-driver, and non-smoker but pro-recycler. He follows all the rules, stopping at flashing stop signs on his morning jog and using his girlfriend’s shampoo, instead of skipping a wash. He works at Seattle Public Radio with his eccentric friend Kyle (Seth Rogen, Knocked Up). Adam’s seemingly stagnant career gets interrupted by coffee breaks with Kyle, who is never afraid to insult his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help) while at the same time creatively keeping him up to date with love-making lingo. The comedic relief is evident but not blatant.
After experiencing some back pain, Adam decides to visit the doctor for some explanation. His results come back and 27 year-old Adam, presented through a first person blur, sits in shock. “You have cancer.” Not the every-day diagnosis for the super-conscious healthy Seattlelite. He breaks the news conditionally to Kyle, Rachael (her insincere charity comes with her purchase of an orphaned dog named Skeletor to keep him company), and then to his mother (Anjelica Huston, The Addams Family) who must also look after her Alzheimer’s stricken husband. Each reaction resembles little pieces of the characters themselves, a sign of burdens and blessings to come. The movie takes on a heavier tone after the diagnosis, pulling and prodding family and friends into confused grasps of allegiance. The specter of chemo-therapy shadows over Adam and his vulnerability proves as a testing ground to the people who care for him.
The responsibility of garnering these heavy pulls of emotion falls on the shoulders of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the squint-eyed mop top from 3rd Rock from the Sun and love-sick puppy in (500) Days of Summer. Yet this character has dimension that he has never dabbled with before. His presence on-screen is unpredictable but harmoniously gravitating, subtly indicating the severity of his life and its changing rhythm. He must relate his introspective qualms to a hired therapist Allisson, played by Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), who is studying to become a doctor. His resentment toward her eccentric overachiever attitude is understandable; he is just her 3rd patient and a therapist 3 years his junior. She plays everything by the book, displayed with well-intentioned quirkiness. Her tenderness is evident though, and like all of Adam’s friends and family, it bursts through distinct, personal antics to create a powerful connection.
The film itself is loosely based off its writer Will Reiser’s own struggle with cancer. At that time, Seth Rogen similarly was his friend who helped him battle the sickness with his comedic punches of raunchy inspired laughter. They say real life experiences can help an actor gain authenticity in a specific role, and it certainly holds true for Rogen. In fact, the “funny but caring sidekick” is beginning to become one of his better roles. He plays a similar persona to those he created in Knocked Up and Funny People, the family un-friendly, foul-mouthed caretaker, who even in his shallow mannerisms still manages to exude sensitivity. Like Rogen catered to Mr. Reiser, his character Kyle tends to a now bald Adam, shaving his hair, carpooling him to the hospital, and escorting him to bars, aggressively pursuing women and using Adam’s cancer as a sympathetic sex-magnet. These escapades seem cold, but they have a hidden layer of compassion that Rogen gives us access to; attentive care that is seen even in his personal gain.
English teachers usually tell their young writers that it is better to “show, not tell” when composing an essay or story: let the dialogue and action speak for itself. Mr. Levine seems to have graduated from this train of thought, building his masterpiece with meaningful and lyrical songs that pass over Adam’s cancer maturation process. The tonality moves with Levitt’s bleak and repressed transitions into contented reserved states, almost as calming as Adam’s older cancer-stricken friends at the hospital. His primary affiliation with them quickly becomes an intimate companionship, a mutually beneficial duo that enjoys a joint as much as having younger company in the hospital lobby. Time spent with these elders pushes Adam into a state of deep reflection, one that he feels even without the confirmation of his weekly therapy session. Each separate relationship focus feels relevant. Even Adam’s mother, played caringly by Anjelica Huston, interwines smoothly while she constantly worries about her little boy. Mr. Levine knows how to dissect the mother-son relationship, stressing their connection up to a perfectly poignant moment.
It’s these peaks of emotion that give 50/50 a certain glow and charm about it, a film that uses humor not to lament a sickness but to embrace it and everything that follows in its path. Its truths come at a price, but are necessary to experience and learn from. What lets this film eclipse other genred archetypes is its realization of personal impact. Every character studies each other, develops stronger understandings of life, and ultimately grows through the process of grief, pain, acceptance, and hope. Adam battles cancer, but he finds mental health in mending his weakenesses. 50/50 molds an eclectic mix of everyday irritations and life-changing events into an ethereal and touching creation of faith and compassion; sweet and sublime.