Many films about cancer are actually only about ‘movie cancer’. These have characters who say they are sick but their disease does not seem to interrupt their lives at all as they continue on normally until one day they unexpectedly disappear because of their phantom cancer. The rest of the films concerning cancer realistically show their characters with aches and pains, traumatic responses to chemotherapy, and emotional breakdowns. 50/50 shows real cancer and not the fake movie kind ala this month’s Gus Van Sant film Restless.
Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 27 year old sound editor for Seattle Public Radio. His relationship with his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is looking up as she is starting to spend more and more nights over at his house. Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) is also a major part of his life mainly as chauffeur, work mate, and deliverer of crude comedic one-liners. Adam has everything going for him and finally decides to head to the doctor to check out some nagging back pain. When the doctor blindsides him with a whole bunch of really long sounding words relating to a tumor on his spine, Adam’s world stops on a dime and all of his plans and expectations just pack up and fly out the window.
He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and he recycles. How on Earth, especially at 27, could he have a tumor? Chemotherapy begins right away as does a myriad of other doctor visits and awkward sessions with a 24 year old therapist who looks even younger than that. Katherine (Anna Kendrick) is assigned as Adam’s therapist to help him sort through his feelings; however, he has a very tough time adjusting to the fact that he is her third patient ever and their rapport takes an immediate hit when she has no idea who this Doogie Howser person Adam keeps mentioning is. Adam also notices how his friends and family relationships change regarding his disease. Which of his friends will step up and stick by him in his troubled times? Will his girlfriend stay supportive, will his best friend want to keep hanging around and will his mother (Anjelica Huston) be able to keep it together enough not become another emotional problem in his life?
50/50 was written by Will Reiser and is loosely based on his real experiences with cancer. Reiser is a frequent co-writer and friend of Seth Rogen which is why he shows up in the sidekick role here. Coincidentally or not, this is also a reprise of a character Rogen played in Funny People when he became Adam Sandler’s sidekick when he had cancer. Rogen’s character Kyle is very similar to his wise-cracking, vulgar characters from Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. In fact, it probably is the same character just with another name because he plays them exactly the same.
The two actors who really rise above the rest in 50/50 are Gordon-Levitt and Kendrick. Continuing a remarkable series of characters from 500 Days of Summer and Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very believable as a young guy who must come to grips with a new reality he did not sign up for. Also, the talented Anna Kendrick shows up in a very familiar role because the audience saw her do the same thing in Up in the Air; she plays a character where she is judged as too young to be effective. Unlike Seth Rogen, Kendrick is extremely capable and her scenes with Gordon-Levitt are as uncomfortable and stunted as they would be in a real hospital.
Bryce Dallas Howard has now played back to back roles as an extremely unsympathetic and callous character; this summer’s The Help has Howard as a conniving villain. She should be careful lest she is typecast as the wicked witch next. Thankfully, Anjelica Huston is here in her juiciest role since 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited or even 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. She does not get too many plum roles anymore which is a shame because she steals the scenes she is in as the emotional wreck of a mother. She overshadows Gordon-Levitt and annihilates Seth Rogen when they share the screen.
I mentioned Restless earlier because both of these films were released close together, have a main character with cancer, and are even both based in the Pacific Northwest. 50/50 is supposedly shot in Seattle and has one or two establishing shots with the Space Needle in the background but the vast majority of it is obviously shot in British Columbia. 50/50 looks and feels that much better because I saw Restless recently and it was so ridiculous in how it showed a character with cancer that 50/50 shines bright above it.
Even though I complain about Seth Rogen’s acting, 50/50 is a very powerful film and does not match the comedy its preview promises. There are scenes to laugh at, but there are many more which are truly deep and prompt meaningful responses from the audience. 50/50 is a delight to watch and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. You will be happy you took the time to seek this one out.