Comedy, I once heard, is a serious business. So is dying, or at least facing the prospect of dying. Basing it on his own experiences, Will Reiser in 50/50 brings laughter to what could be a depressing subject: a young man facing a deadly disease. 50/50 also benefits from one of the best performances by one of our best actors working today.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is basically a good guy (doesn't drink, doesn't smoke) with a questionable girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard--for the second time this year playing a villainness...thank you, The Help). He has a best friend, Kyle (Seth Rogen), who works with him at a National Public Radio station in Seattle (which I imagine would make them the cool guys...at least in Seattle, anyway). However, Adam has been having back pain for some time, so he goes to the doctor. Once he hears the word 'cancer', everything else goes basically unheard.
The reactions among his family and friends reflects their persona: Kyle freaks out but tries to find ways of using this for his top priority (schtupping girls), Rachael gives the appearance of being supportive but can't hide her desire to bail out of this relationship with this as her ticket, and Adam's mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) keeps trying to find a way to attempt to bear over her child. Adam just wants to get over this disease. He has on his journey three more people: fellow chemo patients Alan (Phillip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer), and his recommended counselor Katherine (Anna Kendrick). Alan is a bit of a grump, Mitch isn't, and Katherine is literally a novice at this: Adam is her third patient in her dissertation/training.
As Adam continues his treatment, he gains a dog and loses a bitch (Rachael), with Kyle's help finds the joys of medicinal marijuana and new meaning to the term 'sympathy sex', and comes to find that chemotherapy hasn't worked, so now it's time for surgery. With all this coming on him, his big wish is to do something he's never done...drive. He also finally opens up to a possible relationship with Katherine, ever bumbling yet perky (the psycho...therapist version of Katie Couric).
After watching 50/50, I get the sense that people may be either put off by the subject or be oversold on the idea that this is a real howler of a comedy. Certainly when Rogen is involved (both as actor and producer) you can expect the film to have a healthy dose (no pun intended) of both raunch and odes to pot. There were moments of laughter (most coming from Kyle's efforts to get Adam to see the benefits of using cancer to get laid), but on the whole I didn't laugh as much as I'd been led to believe.
My problem with 50/50 came mostly from Kendrick's Katherine. Is it me, or is it a bit of a cliché to have the ever petty, ever eager yet mostly inept counselor bumble her way into being a romantic character for our hero? I just could never accept that someone this clueless (not only had she never heard of Doogie Howser, M.D. was but actually thought he was a real doctor) and bubbly could ever seriously be training to deal with people battling potentially fatal diseases. One figures that young trainees (even ones as bubbly as Katherine) would have some tact, some intelligence in how to handle situations fraught with pain both physical and emotional. However, as directed by Jonathan Levine with Reiser's screenplay, Katherine comes off with as much ability to help anyone as a ditzy cheerleader.
That aspect (the perky little girl who falls in love, or at least like, with her patient) just never worked for me. I kept thinking that in 50/50 her purpose really wasn't to try and help Adam get some handle on his illness but to give him a chance to have some romantic angle in the film. I also note that for most of 50/50, Adam remains pretty much the same: a smart fellow ready with a quick quip for almost every situation. It really isn't until he learns that the chemo hasn't worked and will have to go to surgery that he shows an emotion besides remarkable distance, even calmness, towards everything.
However, in these moments, once we see just how serious the situation has truly become, once we get to how Adam finally wants to put away all the nonsense of this disease (from his girlfriend cheating to his best friend's inability to see Adam as nothing but a way to get girls to his strained relationship with his mother...and throw in his father is suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer's to boot) that we get an emotional core to 50/50. Adam doesn't just want to drive a car for the first time the night before surgery, he wants to knowingly drive it wrong, as if by forcing others out of the way he can gain some control where he has none.
It's at this scene in particular that we see 50/50 to be a strong film about loss: of control, of friends, of any certainties that come with life (even one as young as Adam's). When he shaves his head rather than lose his hair to the chemo, it's an effort to gain some control over the disease. It's only when after all the treatment and whatever sex he can wrangle out of it that he finds it wasn't enough, Adam finally allows himself a moment of anger, a scream over how everything he's done hasn't helped, and the prospect that he may yet die despite having done everything he could.
Gordon-Levitt continues to give one great performance after another, and 50/50 makes a strong case for an Oscar nomination (if I had anything to say about it). Adam continues to be himself, trying to keep things gong for him, but finding that he can only do so much. Rogen, also, continues to be a Rogen-esque (a slacker who likes pot and broads, presumably in that order), but credit should be given in that near the end of 50/50, Adam discovers that in his own way, he has been trying to be as supportive and as caring a friend as he is able to be. One almost feels for Howard in that here she again is called to play a terrible person, but she does it so well. Huston maintains the balance of Adam's mother being both difficult to be around and truly loving.
My caveat about 50/50 is that it is not as funny as one might be led to believe. Its humor does ease some of the edges of being a story about cancer. The film maintains a good balance between being delicate with the subject matter and being more of a slacker/stoner romp. Minus the romantic angle and Kendrick's bubbly schtick, 50/50 has the odds in its favor of being a good, though not great, film.