Directed By: Jonathan Levine
Written By: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anjelica Huston, Philip Baker Hall, and Matthew Frewer
Director of Photography: Terry Stacey, Editor: Zene Baker, Production Designer: Annie Spitz, Original Music: Michael Giacchino
Rated: R for naughty language and situations.
There’s no way around it: cancer sucks. No one likes cancer, cause no one likes dying, or losing their hair, or feeling like you need to vomit all the time. It’s an easy enemy for the cinematic machine that characters must fight through and come together to beat. But what if we had a laugh along the way as well?
That’s the new angle in the new comedic drama, 50/50, about a young man who finds out he has a rare and ugly type of cancer. The film is written by Will Reiser, who wrote this screenplay on his own experiences with battling cancer (sorry, I may have just gave away the ending) at a young age and the comic absurdities he went through. Mr. Reiser, an alum of Da Ali G Show, would often joke during his time about writing a comedy about the tragic disease with his then roommate Seth Rogen. As it turns out, 50/50 is a little more serious than bizarre, anchored through both its antics and pathos by a standout Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a young public radio reporter with a few hints of neurosis and an annoying but lovable best friend, played here by Mr. Rogen (thus increasing the meta). He has a controlling and slightly shrill girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) and Alzheimer’s effected father (that’s four films so far this year that use Alzheimer’s as a plot device, for those counting). Soon enough, Adam finds out he has a rare form of cancer in a spine, with only a 50% survival rate.
Similar to his lackadaisical stoner comedy The Wackness, director Jonathan Levine is not so much interested in narrative momentum as much as character study. Adam’s life slowly evolves, the script’s best moments cover the nuances that occurred to Mr. Reiser during his treatment, such as looking over everyone’s reactions, none them seem fit. The film plays loose with the comedy, mostly coming from Mr. Rogen playing the same Mr. Rogen we’ve all come to know and love.
But the heart of this film, and the reason it works, is Mr. Gordon-Levitt. Spotting a bald top for most of the film, the Brick and Inception star keeps a strong internalized view of himself as the realities start to kick in, slowly revealing his levels. Just as equal to Mr. Gordon-Levitt is the young and perky Anna Kendrick, who most will remember from Up in the Air. Ms. Kendrick has a way to create those adorable twitches in her mouth that show great emotion with small gestures. She plays Adam’s young and naïve therapist, and the scenes between the two are a delight to watch as they both battle their absurd predicament (though the ending between the two stretches some plausibility issues).
Playing between serious drama and serious comedy can be tough, and it’s a shame that 50/50 only sticks out often in its more nuanced small moments, while its big emotional or comedic set pieces (including uses of medical marijuana) sort of dismiss its own potential as an original work. The film takes a too predictable projector in terms of its characters, and if it weren’t for the fine performance of Mr. Gordon-Levitt to carry the emotions fluidly, the final climax might not exactly payoff. 50/50 shoots its story quite broad, and Mr. Levine doesn’t have the directorial chops to really bring that all into a colorful pastiche. His palette scheme sort of let’s the grays and blues of the hospital world and the Seattle skyline take precedent over any real design. Thank goodness though Mr. Gordon-Levitt’s heart shines like a bright star, fighting through the darkness with a good sense of humor.