When I first heard about the movie 50/50, a film with Seth Rogen in it that uses comedy to traverse the unpleasantries of terminal illness, I probably had the same thought that most people had: didn’t they already do that in the movie Funny People. The truth is that the projects aren’t really all that similar. Funny People was largely the vision of Judd Apatow and was as much about fame as it was about dying: it was an examination of what it means to be a celebrity comedian and an examination of what such a person would be remembered for. 50/50 is the work of a mildly successful comedy writer named Will Reiser who actually faced cancer, survived, and is now using comedy to bring closure to the experience.
Reiser’s alter ego in the film is a twenty seven year old producer for Seattle Public Radio named Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Adam is at a nice place in his life; he has a good job, a strong friendship with a co-worker named Kyle (Seth Rogen), and a stable relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). Most of that is derailed when he’s told that he has a tumor around his spine that is giving him a rare form of cancer called neurofibroma sarcoma schwannoma, an ailment the internet tells him he only has a fifty percent chance of surviving. Soon he experiences the indignities of chemotherapy, hair loss, and abandonment, but his friendship with Kyle maintains and throughout the movie he finds ways to maintain his cool while facing his own mortality.
50/50 is what you’d call a “dramedy”: it functions as a comedy while also having a deadly serious side. That is an extremely difficult tightrope for most movies to walk and the fact that Will Reiser’s script is able to hit that format out of the park is a big reason why I admire 50/50 so much. Most dramedys will more or less play out like a drama except with a few “quirky” moments sprinkled in, or they’ll function like a comedy for most of their running time before suddenly getting really sentimental at their climax. This film’s comedy/drama division is more like, well… like a fifty-fifty split (yes, pun intended). I suppose it veers closer to the “drama with funny moments” dichotomy than the reverse, and people expecting a rowdy laugh-fest along the line of other Seth Rogen vehicles might be disappointed, but the film doesn’t skimp on the comedy either and is a lot more funny than the aforementioned film Funny People.
Most of the comedy does come from Seth Rogen, who is playing exactly the kind of crass slacker that audiences have fallen in love with, it’s not a huge stretch for him as an actor but he’s doing what he does well and he’s really at the top of his game here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is of course the real star here and this is one of the best vehicles he’s had to show off his talents so far. Gordon-Levitt has long showed in movies like (500) Days of Summer that he can play likable young men and in movies like The Lookout and Brick that he can handle darker material as well, and these two sides intersect nicely here in a movie where he plays a likable young man who must deal with serious pressures in his life. The film also features some really nice supporting performances by actors ranging from Angelica Huston as Adams smothering mother, Anna Kendrick who plays Adam’s rather young stress therapist, and Phillip Baker Hall who plays an older cancer victim that Adam meets at his chemotherapy sessions.
I had only the mildest of enthusiasm for director Jonathan Levine’s first film, The Wackness, although that probably had more to do with the script that Levine wrote for that film than with his direction. I wouldn’t exactly call him a master auteur over his work here either, but he does a perfectly competent job making this film and preventing any unnecessary stylistic tricks from getting in the way of Reiser’s script. The fashionable thing to do these days is to fill these kind of movies about young singles with quirky Wes Anderson “homages” and to wedge in a “hip” indie-rock soundtrack into the film in an attempt to sell a few soundtrack albums on the side. Levine doesn’t do any of this and instead makes a very dignified film that allows the actors room to display their skills and allow the script to speak for itself.
I’m normally weary of movies that are autobiographical in nature, which can often be self-indulgent stories that are not really worthy of the big screen treatment (Levine’s The Wackness would fall into that category), but this movie is autobiographical in the best sense of the word. You can tell that Reiser is drawing upon the awkwardness and anxiety he felt throughout his ordeal and it all rings really true. This is exactly the kind of movie that’s really easy to underappreciate. It’s not the most complex or sophisticated film you’ll ever see, but it creates characters that are so likable and interesting that it really feels rewarding inn its own straightforward way by the end. It’s genuinely funny and touching and is one of the best film experiences that I think I’ll have all year.
**** out of Four