Review: 50/50

Adam doesn’t drive. He’s never even gotten a driver’s license. Driving is just too dangerous. Adam jogs and takes care of himself. He recycles. And one day he’s diagnosed with cancer.

“50/50” is a remarkable film. Not one single moment rings untrue. It is the most sincere movie I’ve seen so far this year. What is most remarkable is that while it deals with a serious and often depressing subject, it is one of the funniest films of the year as well. And the laughs aren’t the big artificial ones that marked the summer’s raunchy releases; instead there are deep thoughtful moments of genuine hilarity.

Kyle (Seth Rogen) and Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) have been friends since high school. Kyle is a loveable but flawed twentysomething whose chief aim in life is to land as many girls as possible. Adam is his polar opposite. Kyle’s affable confidence acts as Adam’s cautious, even timid, foil. When Adam is diagnosed with cancer, Adam’s reaction is to exaggerate his personality inundating his sick friend in crude positive energy. And, in a way, Kyle and Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Houston), react similarly both with love and concern.

It should come as no surprise that “50/50” is an inside job. Will Reiser, who wrote the screenplay, went through his own battle with cancer of the spine. He and Seth Rogen are friends and turned their experiences into this film. There is no doubt that real world connections contribute heavily to the movie’s successful chemistry. And the casting of Gordon-Levitt is smart as well—not only is he a terrific actor but Gordon-Levitt and Reiser look similar. Certainly, the resemblance helped Rogen get into character playing a variation of himself but in a restrained performance not typical of his goofy stoner alter ego.

But a funny movie about cancer? How could that work? Well, it does, primarily because it is not forced, rather, the jokes come out of the tragedy naturally. We are treated to a bittersweet and, yes, hilarious, fly-on-the-wall look at two friend’s experiences with personal and medical disaster. Rogen and Gordon-Levitt in their on-screen personas joke dryly about the situation just like one would imagine a couple close buds would. The wise cracks ripple through the film and are funny because they break the almost unbearable tension. The cast just gives in completely to the humor combined with the gravity of the moments making nothing feel the least bit contrived. And I’ve was utterly taken with the matter-of-fact approach that chronicled Adam’s journey with cancer.

Minor issues I noticed had to do with how procedurally the medical treatment is handled. Adam isn’t shown getting a second opinion, and there are no experimental options explored. I suppose that the cancer and the detail of Adam’s care isn’t the point of the film. “50/50” isn’t a social commentary piece on the health care system like, say, Denys Arcand’s Oscar winning “The Barbarian Invasions.” And by avoiding politics, “50/50” scores points in just covering the human condition like some of the best films in recent memory. It’s a movie that can be almost universally appreciated by people of all ages.

In one moving scene, Adam has to tell his mother about his disease. His mother already has a lot on her plate, because his father is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Adam’s plastic girlfriend (played well by Bryce Dallas Howard) is clearly uncomfortable and encourages Adam to just tell her directly. At first, he asks his mother if she’s ever seen “Terms of Endearment.” What happens next is funny, but also the kind of bittersweet moment that makes “50/50” the “Terms of Endearment” for this generation. And the presence of Angelica Houston can’t be dismissed–she’s just fantastic. It’s a small role that could land her awards recognition.

“50/50” is one of this years best films.