Making a film about cancer is difficult. Making a comedy about cancer, however, is nigh-on impossible, at least that’s what we thought until this wonderfully uplifting and heartfelt film, 50/50, came along. Based on the experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, The Wackness director Jonathan Levine’s film is perhaps one of the most honest – and at times brutal, but also brutally funny – films about staring death in the face, and simply praying that you make it out the other side.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a healthy, young radio journalist who makes the effort to exercise regularly, and doesn’t indulge in drinking, drugs or smoking. His world is brought crashing down, therefore, when he recieves a surprise cancer diagnosis, with doctors giving him a 50/50 chance of surviving. While Adam is initially calm and philosophical about it, those around him are anything but; his girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) panics and acts irrationally, his mother Diane (Anjelica Huston) reverts to treating him like a baby, while his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) tries to put a positive spin on it and helps him use his illness to pick up women. Adam is then referred to a trainee psychologist, Katie (Anna Kendrick), who seems to be the only one able to truly put things into perspective and help him deal with it.
While meaningful films have been made about this subject before, too often they are either saccharine or disingenuous, never putting their protagonist in any palpable mortal danger, nor giving us a real doubt that everything will end happily. Levine’s film, however, dabbles in a very different way; an undercurrent of scathing – but more importantly, honest – humour creates an all-bets-are-off atmosphere, where we wonder if Adam actually might not make it through his illness. An early joke about Patrick Swayze’s mortal status will certainly have audiences squirming in their seats as they laugh, but the jokes are well-calculated and never in poor taste; Reiser’s script expertly balances its bold, daring moments with its more familiar – yet no less brilliant – emotional ones.
Better than any film in recent memory, 50/50 emphasises to heartbreaking effect the soul-crushing loneliness any cancer sufferer has to deal with; for all of the support a network of friends and family might provide, they’re not the ones facing the potential end of their life, nor the one who has to drag their chemo-ravaged body in and out of dismissive doctor’s offices, a facet demonstrated skilfully here with blurry visuals and muffled audio, reflecting Adam’s disassociation with what he is hearing. It is through its nature very nearly a film with no real winners, just varying degrees of losers, for Reiser’s script does what only a lived-in story drawing from life experience can do, and tells it like it is, refusing to bow to any sort of ‘laughter-is-the-best-medicine’ reductionism and instead confronting its conflict head-on, often painfully so.
The only flight of caricature in the whole picture, in fact, is Bryce Dallas Howard’s girlfriend character, who is the requisite additional obstacle to Adam’s recovery, an extra mental stress to make his struggle all the more difficult. Nevertheless, Howard plays against type well here, and brings enough humanity and dimension to the role that it works; after all, how many of us would put on a brave face and just carry on if our significant other developed life-threatening cancer? Anjelica Huston meanwhile appears to veer close to a well-trodden stock character from the outset as the doting, frenzied mother, but with much grander effect, her sublime performance also becomes a deeply moving one thanks to a transformative script and an intuitive interpretation by the veteran actress.
Matters could so easily have devolved into misery porn long before the end, what with a wavering girlfriend, mentally ill father and OCD-riddled therapist only adding to Adam’s stress. It never does, though, because of a strong grasp on the fierce human spirit burning beneath all the jokes and dramas. One telling scene, and what would certainly be the Oscar-reel clip for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s outstanding performance, has Adam being wheeled away for his life-or-death operation, and as the anaesthetic begins to kick in, he tells his thoroughly distraught mother that he’s scared, as if momentarily harkening back to a childlike state in this time of panic. If you’re not in tears by the scene’s end – accentuated wonderfully by the use of Liars’ haunting song “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” – then you’d best have a root around for your humanity under your seat on the way out of the cinema.
By way of Academy prejudice this is typically the sort of film that takes home a stack of Golden Globes rather than Oscars, but in the Best Original Screenplay category, this is a candidate right at the top of the pile.
Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, positively deserves recognition for his deeply affecting performance, unquestionably his best work since that impressive turn in Mysterious Skin. The player who delivers in spite of himself, though, is Seth Rogen, pulling out what is easily a career-best turn as Adam’s dedicated friend, with both his own and the film’s comic and dramatic aspirations being tied together by way of one very brief but crucial shot of a book sitting on top of a toilet.
Nimbly switching gears between heartful drama and uproarious comedy, 50/50 tackles the near-impossible and makes a film about cancer that’ll have you crying like a baby one minute and laughing so hard your sides hurt the next. And of course, it could happen to any of us.
50/50 screened at the London Film Festival and opens in the U.K. on November 25th.