The last time comedy was placed alongside cancer, it was called Funny People. Despite Funny People being a quality film, audiences were supremely annoyed that it wasn’t the usual Adam Sandler shenanigans but instead consisted more of drama than comedy. 50/50 should avoid the same sort of audience disdain, as it blends comedy and drama with equal measure.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as NPR producer Adam Schwartz, whose routine doctor visit ends with the news that he has a type of cancer that gives him a 50/50 shot of surviving. Adam is flanked by: his buddy Kyle (Seth Rogen), who tries to keep Adam’s spirits up with regular exhortations to parlay his cancer into pity-sex; his smothering mother (Angelica Houston); his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrik); and his chemotherapy treatment buddies who introduce him to the medicinal uses of marijuana.
From the lighter banter between Adam and Kyle to the final showdown with his disease, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the reason to see 50/50. Never allowing him to be a tragic saint, JGL makes Adam come across as hateful and loving, fearless and paralyzed. These are subtle oscillations for a film under two hours long, and Levitt masters these moves. If it weren’t for the script by Will Reiser (who based the story on his own experience with cancer) that allows Levitt the emotional space to explore the moments of naked humanity, 50/50 would be all fluff and no bite. As it is, if you aren’t crying when Adam’s being doped up for the big surgery, join the Tin Man club.
Yet the tragic never overwhelms the comedic, and vice versa. The dynamics between Kyle and his motley crew are filled with more levity than depression. Adam’s life doesn’t come to a stand-still when cancer comes knocking, which is what makes the film feel so natural and likable.
Seth Rogen is this Titanic’s iceberg. The “bromance” between Kyle and Adam is barely redeemed by the end, since the rest of the film consists of Kyle’s lewd sexual banter and a vocabulary that seems solely derived from urban-dictionary.com. He’s a loud obnoxious twat, and stands as the archetypical “bromance” character who has to be über-male so as to assure the audience that the homosocial relationship isn’t homosexual, the nail in the coffin for any heterosexual male (sarcasm intended). Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are allowed to be emotional male friends in their films (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul), why can’t U.S. buddies have the same connection without overwhelming the dialogue with juvenile sex talk?
Issues with representations of male friendships and Seth Rogen aside, 50/50 hits its marks, even if the ending is a bit shaky. This critic is glad to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt in more films, but it will be nice to see him return to more daring work in the future (like his past work in Mysterious Skin and Brick).